Diversification of Primary School Provision: Statements

I consider the future policy direction we adopt on the diversity of primary school provision to be one that has the potential to impact not just on the educational environment, but on society and our social and civic structures generally for many years to come. I wanted this opportunity for statements from Members because I recognise that the many different and changing views in contemporary Ireland are represented in the House. Some Deputies opposite have been pressing me on the idea of a forum, but the best forum is this Chamber, where the opinions of Members, reflecting those of their constituents and communities, can be aired.

In forming future policy, we must prioritise the views of parents and communities, views that are best reflected through Deputies. This is not to exclude the knowledgeable insight of those managing and working in our system, but it is the case that the views of children and parents must come first in our considerations.

In introducing the debate, it is important that I outline the progress made on several fronts in recent years. Traditionally, primary schools have been under the patronage of religious authorities, and the vast majority under the patronage of the Catholic Church. During the past 20 years, Educate Together has established 56 schools with a further two opening this September. Several other school models have also been recognised in recent times, including the Steiner schools and the John Scottus school. Two schools under the new community national school model are open with a further three to open this September.

As well as diversity of type of religion or ethos, there is increasing development ofgaelscoileanna, with 138 such schools in place. That said, significant issues are emerging about the definitions and types of diversity that might be recognised and how they can be accommodated while maximising the effective use of existing and new infrastructure and educational expenditure generally, particularly at a time of scarce resources.

Between 2002 to 2008, arrangements recommended by the Commission on School Accommodation operated for the recognition of new primary schools. This provided that, where patrons approached the New Schools Advisory Committee, NSAC, and there was evidence of sufficient numbers to establish a school, a new school was established on a provisional basis and recognition was given on a permanent basis when the numbers were confirmed, subject to appropriate inspection by the inspectorate. These arrangements have led to some increases in diversity.

The NSAC raised a range of issues it believed needed to be considered in its work, including those related to the definition and identification of diversity and other criteria for recognising a new school. The committee was acutely aware of the changed climate in terms of future enrolment trends and demands for recognition of new schools. It also had concerns as to the continued relevance of its terms of reference, particularly in circumstances where some schools needed to be recognised directly by the Minister outside of the NSAC process in certain areas where new schools needed to be established at short notice to meet surges in pupil numbers.

Another outcome of existing arrangements was that the State had supported the establishment of new schools in some areas where the population was not growing and could even have been declining. The establishment of these schools also gave rise to increasing costs, both capital and recurring, while only some of them have assisted in meeting demographic increases. Many of these schools started in temporary accommodation, which has added to the pressure on the limited primary schools capital budget at a time of significant demographic growth.

Society has been changing and there are increasing calls for parental choice in the patronage of primary schools. While there has been a traditional concept of the local primary school that can meet the needs of the majority of those living locally, this has increasingly been coming into question and, particularly in urban areas, there has been an increasing tendency for children to attend schools of various types that are not necessarily their nearest schools. These changes have meant that we have needed to examine many of the aspects of the primary schools system that have been in place traditionally or were put in place in recent years to cater for diversity.

I wish to highlight three aspects of these developments. The first relates to the development of a new type of primary school, the second to new arrangements for recognition of new primary schools and the third to the potential for the Catholic Church to divest patronage in some schools. The Government will shortly publish for the House's consideration a Bill that will include provisions for the statutory underpinning of new community national schools. I will make three main points in this respect.

First, community national schools provide a model that, while fully respecting diversity of belief, allows for faith formation during the school day in accordance with the wishes of parents. The emphasis in the community national school model is on respect for the diversity of cultures in our society. One of its central purposes is to cater for diversity within a single school setting rather than in more than one school. Historically, a considerable strength of our primary schools was that most students attended their local schools together. The Government considered it important in an increasingly diverse society to determine whether we could develop a new model that would accommodate the greatest number of students in a community as possible. The overwhelming emphasis in the multi-belief programme being developed for the schools is on inclusivity and children are taught a common programme together as a group for more than 80% of the time. Differentiation takes place for short periods of faith-specific teaching as might happen in the teaching of any subject. The pilot phase of this new model provides an important learning opportunity and its evaluation will enable informed decisions to be made on the roll-out of this model of patronage in other locations. An important part of the evaluation will be an assessment of the impact of the schools on the local community.

In the recent public commentary on how faith-specific teaching impacts on children, there has been little comparable debate on what has been the impact on communities of different children going to different schools rather than going to school together. The impact on our communities of children going to different schools, rather than having all of the children or at least most of them being educated in the same school must surely be greater. Furthermore, the State had a choice in considering the model for these schools. The choice was to make them non-denominational and, therefore, unable to meet the needs of a parent seeking denominational education for his or her child or to make them multi-denominational and, thus, potentially able to cater for all children and to provide a choice in religious education, including the choice not to have denominational education. There is no reason that, depending on community wishes and evolution over time, a non-denominational community school model could not be developed at some point.

Second, until the establishment of these schools, the State facilitated patrons in taking the initiative for the establishment of primary schools. This contrasts greatly with the role of the State in second level education where it has been actively involved in the establishment of schools for many years. Is it not appropriate that, as a complementary alternative to existing patronage models, there should be a mechanism in place for the State to establish a primary school in a similar manner as it establishes a second level school? The role of the State in establishing schools at second level has been significant and vocational education committees, VECs, can make an important contribution at primary level.

Third, a situation can arise where a primary school needs to be established but no patron is willing to establish it. The current system cannot require that a patron establish a school and, therefore, it is possible that a situation could arise where no patron wishes to establish a new primary school in a particular location despite a demand that would warrant its establishment. The State cannot stand aside from an obligation in this regard. I expect that, in addition to our opportunity today, we will have considerable debate on these issues on the introduction of the Bill to the House.

My predecessor asked the Commission on School Accommodation to review the arrangements in place concerning the establishment of new primary schools. The commission represents a range of education partners and I am awaiting advice from it that I expect to receive in the next month or so. Pending receipt and consideration of this advice, the only new primary schools being established are those in response to demographic demand.

In the commission's work, it also takes account of issues relating to diverse patronage models and the size of schools. For example, if 32 classrooms are needed in a particular area, establishing four mainstream schools might not be the most effective use of resources. On the other hand, not all primary schools should necessarily have 24 or classrooms. These issues are being considered by the commission. It has undertaken extensive consultation as part of its work. In response to this, 27 submissions have been received and the most common themes received in the submissions were issues relating to shared campuses, planning and relationship of schools with local authorities, the issue of diversity and the minimum numbers of pupils required for the establishment of a new school. I envisage that a summary of all the submissions received will be published by the commission when its advisory report to me is published. All of this advice and background material on the views of various partners in education will feed into the decision-making process.

One of the key issues in deciding the criteria for who should be the patron of a school will be how views are taken account of in coming to that decision. The position in recent years had been that individual patron bodies indicated they had quantified the number of parents wishing to enrol children in infant classes. However, that approach is confined to particular parents. There may be further options in surveying parents, and indeed prospective parents, on a wider basis in local communities to see what their views are if a range of options is identified for them. There are particular challenges as some communities are only just developing themselves and schools are being established for people who do not yet live in a particular area. I would see this as an issue that will need to be addressed in any new arrangements being put in place.

In turn, this raises the issue which has been referred to by some Members of this House about the need for a national survey on the wishes of parents concerning the patronage of primary schools. Having an understanding of the views of parents across society would be an important element in deciding on the future patronage of schools.

We already have some views from the Catholic Church that it wishes to reduce its engagement in the patronage of primary schools, ultimately to a level consistent with the demand for Catholic education whatever that may be in the future. I am not sure whether a national survey of parental preference on the patronage of primary schools would give a definitive road-map. The expression in an overall survey can be a very general one, but when parents come to decide on the school to send their children to, a number of other factors beyond patronage can come into play, and the decision could be different from that which was expressed in an overall opinion survey.

Parents can also be concerned about school performance, proximity and having their children attend the school their playmates in the community are attending. Therefore, it is also important to develop arrangements to ascertain the views of parents at a local level in the context of knowledge about the choice of schools in the locality.

In areas where new schools are needed to cater for demographic increases the needs of an increasingly diverse society through diversifying provision will be met. As I indicated earlier, providing new schools in areas of stable or declining school population may not be the best way of using public resources. Indeed, it may have unintended impacts on other school provision, yet we must tackle issues of diversity in these areas as well. We will need to explore the potential for different approaches and may need a multiplicity of approaches to address the different issues posed in individual areas depending on population diversity, existing school configuration and different local community and parental preferences.

One possible approach, which I wish to refer to in some detail, is the issue of the Catholic Church divesting itself of certain schools. This issue was originally raised by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin in the context of the overall number of primary schools in the archdiocese. In subsequent discussions, the Catholic Church expressed a preference for my Department, rather than the church itself, to identify areas where potentially there might be too many Catholic schools compared to demand for such schools, as an initial step to allow them to consider those areas in more detail. My Department agreed to examine a number of initial locations to see what scope or options might exist for a change of patronage in these cases. The particular focus was on identifying a sample number of areas of relatively stable demographics where the establishment of new schools was unlikely to emerge in the foreseeable future and where the provision is exclusively Catholic, or there was a very limited diversity at present.

The overall aim is that there will be a list of sample areas which can then be used to try the modalities by which the number of Catholic places in schools will be reduced and released for others. The focus is initially on looking at urban areas where there are a number of Catholic schools and where the population is likely to be sufficient to support a number of schools of diverse type.

There was some criticism in this House when this was discussed in the context of parliamentary questions two weeks ago. It was expressed that it will not be possible for the Catholic Church to consult within its community and the schools stakeholders, including teachers and other employees, on whether there is a willingness to divest their interest in particular schools. I would not want to assume that this would be the case. I wish to give the opportunity to the Catholic community to have such an engagement and to come back to me. I consider it is very important that this concept is tested to see if it will work before dismissing it as not being able to work. I certainly agree that if, as a result of such discussions, some schools are identified these can be used for testing the modalities.

I am hopeful that the outcome of the discussions with the Catholic Church will lead to the trialling of divesting arrangements and we can then learn from this. It may be that it is successful in some areas and may not work in others. I recognise that this may not give us the full solution to the future development of school patronage either, but I consider that this has the potential to play a major role. We may need to think of other approaches that we should take and I am open to hearing suggestions in this regard.

This is a very important time for discussion on these issues. We are at a key stage of development and testing in this area and I am open to hearing the views of everyone in this House on potential ways forward. There will be some further opportunities in the House in the near future for views on particular aspects of the areas of work that I have outlined, particularly in the context of the discussion on community national schools, to which I have alluded.

I am committed to further consultation with the education partners and with the wider public. I have an open mind about the extent and nature of such further consultation at present. I recognise that as developments are advanced it may be helpful to have a national discussion, as has been suggested. I will listen to the views of everyone here today about how they think such consultation should be undertaken and will consider this in the context of the progress on the issues to which I have referred. I thank the House for allowing me this opportunity to outline my views. This is a listening exercise for me in order to ascertain what Members of the House have to say.

For the past three years, I have been one of the Opposition spokespersons on education. The public debate on ownership, control and patronage of our schools has been waged on the airwaves and in newspapers, but it has effectively taken three years for the matter to be discussed in this House. The Tánaiste now says that she wants to engage in a debate and she sees this House as the vehicle for doing so. We are coming at this very late, however, and in an unstructured manner. If one wanted to organise a debate involving all the stakeholders in Irish education, including the patrons and partners, one would not do it this way.

This debate has raged for many years, yet now — one minute to midnight, as it were — our national Parliament is holding the first ever debate in this area. It is not the way we should be doing business. I want to hear the comments of colleagues on all sides of the House, but I also want to hear in a structured, public way the views of the patrons, parents, teachers and their representatives. That should happen in a way that allows for proper dialogue and debate. Statements do not allow for that, however, even through the elected Members of this House. We need a national forum which could sit publicly, similar to the forum established in the 1980s on Northern Ireland, as a means of teasing out all these issues. They are complicated issues, which are tinged by history and culture. We will not arrive at an easy solution on this because of that very debate. I repeat my call for a national forum on education to deal exclusively with the patronage, control and ownership of our schools.

We are meeting today on the first anniversary of the publication of the Ryan report. If ever there was a low point in Irish public administration, it was in respect of the indemnity deal negotiated on that very issue by the Tánaiste's predecessors and the Department of Education and Science. Many of the issues in that report are intermingled with those we are discussing today.

I wish to enunciate two fundamental principles at the start of this debate, which are enshrined in Article 42 of our Constitution. First, parents are the kings in Irish education. The idea that the parent is the natural educator of their child is a fundamental constitutional prerequisite which we should all hold dear, and which remains within our Constitution. Any deviation from that view is false and wrong. If Catholic parents wish to send their children to Catholic schools, this State has an obligation and right to support that choice. If Protestant parents wish to send their children to Protestant schools, this State also has an obligation and a right to defend that. Equally, if parents who have no religious denomination choose to send their children to non-denominational or even interdenominational schools, Members have an obligation to support that right. This constitutes a starting point for me.

However, the other starting point is that difference is a good thing within Irish education. The fact that we have different schools within primary and post-primary education is a matter for celebration and is a positive feature of the Irish education system. If one goes back to the first foundation point for national school education, namely, the famous Stanley letters of the 1830s from the Chief Secretary for Ireland, the underlying idea was the concept of difference and choice. It is a fundamental part of this debate.

In addition, ideology has no part of this debate either. People do not want schools to be turned into an ideologically obsessed schooling system. As for this debate, ideology should be left at the doorstep and the debate should be open and honest.

It is important to recognise the extraordinary contribution made by the churches and by the Catholic Church in particular to Irish education over the years. When this State had neither the will nor the finances to support Irish education, the Catholic Church was doing so free gratis. I also wish to acknowledge that most of the heavy lifting in respect of welcoming newcomer children to Ireland has been done by Irish Catholic schools. This point has not been recognised in much of the commentary on this issue.

That is a good point.

The truth is that Catholic schools in Ireland are Catholic with a small "C" rather than a large "C". While it may be that some of that church's members seek more Catholic-driven schools in which Catholic social doctrine would be communicated, this is not my experience. The great majority of Catholic schools in this country are ordinary national schools. They are Catholic with a small "C" and are not akin to Pakistani madrassa school that are driven by an ideological religious bent. They are an outcome of historical circumstance.

They are not any more.

They certainly are not any more and this point must be recognised. However, listening to some commentators, one would have thought they are a kind of ideologically driven school, which is not the case. A significant number of children in these schools come from homes in which the parents may be baptised Catholics but are not part and parcel of the Catholic Church on a weekly or monthly basis. However, that is fine because they are local national schools.

I am not convinced by the argument that parents throughout the country are obsessed by the issue of patronage on an annual, daily or weekly basis. In common with the Tánaiste and Deputy Quinn, I travel around the country visiting many schools and the great majority of parents speak to me about buildings, special needs assistants, teachers, principals and quality. They are not obsessed by the issue of school patronage. However, I also recognise that a significant minority of parents are concerned that they lack the choice within their locality of a different form of school that reflects their ethos and particular view of the world. Consequently, Members have an obligation to provide this.

As a starting point, I wish to set out some ideas I have on this subject, on the basis that the Tánaiste is in listening mode today. I am familiar with what the Tánaiste had to say regarding my comments concerning a survey. I want the Department of Education and Skills to organise it. While I am fascinated to read opinion polls in The Irish Times and to hear what the Iona Institute might tell me, the Department of Education and Skills should organise a simple survey of every parent in the country to ascertain their views on this issue to gauge how widespread is the dissatisfaction with the present set-up. The Tánaiste is the appropriate person to do this as it is her job, not some other organisation which may have an ideological bent one way or the other. It would be good to have some direct information on this issue. The Tánaiste is not in favour of the form, which I consider to be a missed opportunity. An opportunity for public bilaterals is required, rather than the private bilaterals that take place at present between some of the patrons and the Department. The idea of a survey is a means of achieving this.

Every new school that has been established over the past 15 years effectively has been one for which the land has been purchased by the State and the buildings have been provided by the State. Such schools then have been leased to a patron, be it Catholic, Protestant, Educate Together, Gaelscoileanna or whatever. I believe this is the format that must be arrived at in virtually the entire school system.

I also believe the State should own the lands and buildings of all education facilities but that it should lease out to various education providers, that is, patrons, those buildings for the purposes of those educational facilities. This is important because it is not the responsibility of the Catholic Church, the Protestant churches or any other church to fund school buildings. It is the responsibility of taxpayers to so do and without fund-raising it is very difficult to get together the funds to allow a school to proceed. In the long term, we should be working towards a point at which all buildings should be in the ownership of the State but leased out to patrons as a means of providing education for the purposes of the ethos of those patrons and the parents who want those patrons. This is a development that should happen.

I am very interested in what has happened at post-primary level in recent years, whereby the religious orders have reorganised themselves into educational trusts. This is a useful new development in which effectively, the nuns, brothers and priests have established new educational trusts for the purposes of providing schools within the voluntary sector. This should be considered as a model for primary education. The idea that schools should come under the direct control of a bishop and a diocese is very dated. The Catholic Church is considering a review of dioceses as a current issue, for instance.

However, it would be useful to examine the concept of trusts, as established at a post-primary level, to ascertain whether it could work out at primary school level as well. Effectively, one would have a trust that would have the opportunity to provide schools throughout the country on a centralised basis. As many parish priests who are on multiple boards of management have told me, they find it difficult to attend meetings of all these boards. While I will not mention names in the House, this is a real issue for the church. I believe the church has a responsibility to ascertain whether the manner in which the patronage model is rolled out can be reorganised and can be done on a more sensible basis. Consequently, what has happened at post-primary level is interesting.

Issues also arise in respect of boards of management. An increase in the number of parents' representatives on such boards should be considered. At present, they have eight members, two of whom effectively are parents' representatives. Why should this not be increased? In some areas with big or small schools, the opportunity of having a single board of management for a number of schools should be considered. Such a clustering idea could be examined as a means of achieving greater efficiencies and of allowing the affected schools to achieve their goals in their own localities. While many measures can be taken in this regard, ultimately it will require a public debate because none of these things will happen overnight.

The Tánaiste spoke about the new community school model. If ever there was an example of how dysfunctional is the Department of Education and Science, it is on this issue. At present two such schools are operating in County Dublin. I understand that next year, additional community national schools will open in counties Kildare and Meath as well. However, the requisite legislation has not passed through this House.

For a very good reason. It is not constitutional.

On the basis of the religious tuition. I have legal opinion that the Tánaiste is right in saying section 10 of the Education Act allows the State to be a patron but it does not specify in the section which bodies within the State can be patrons, it does not say only the VEC or any other State structure can do it. We have set these schools up without any legislative underpinning. If ever there was an example of the Department of Education and Skills at its legislative worst, it is surely this.

As Deputy Quinn pointed out, there is a constitutional issue on the question of religious tuition within those schools. If we read Professor Coolahan's evidence to the Supreme Court on a number of cases, it sums things up well — we have never had State schools in Ireland, rather a State-supported system of schooling. Outside of the model schools, which were historically State schools, and the new VEC schools, we have a system of supporting various schools that are in place.

I question whether the State can support denominational education where it provides it through the VEC model. That is now happening in these two new schools and will be extended. Why has this legislation not been introduced? Why have we not had the ten areas?

When Deputy Batt O'Keeffe was Minister for Education and Science, he issued a press statement every minute, with big ideas that were not thought out but were designed to grab a headline. I hope we will not go back to that. I implore the Tánaiste to think about this.

I welcome this debate. It should be in-depth and constructive, and held in a structured way outside this House but I cannot see that happening if we take the approach the Government is advocating.

I thank the Minister for facilitating opening of this discussion. I have had the honour and privilege of being a Minister of State in one Department and a Minister in four others. My experience in shadowing the Department of Education and Skills, as it is now, is one that leads me to be believe the Department is malevolently dysfunctional. I cite as a recent example that the Minister was just about to sit down when her speech, which was probably written between Friday and Tuesday of this week, was delivered to us. It is a discourtesy to this House that is consistent with the behaviour of the Department of Education and Skills when appearing before the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Science. The Minister may recall that I made that point to her at the committee. This practice must change because there are wonderful people in the Department of Education and Skills but the collective is dysfunctional.

This debate on patronage is ideological, it is important and it must be addressed in terms of the 21st century but we must not lose sight of the day job: to ensure that our children, who only grow up once, do not become victims of an ideological debate conducted by adults who have long since had the benefit of emerging from the education system and who are pursuing different agendas in their adult life. We have seen the victims of that in Britain, where the ideological debate has got in the way of the delivery of quality education in the classroom.

I look forward to parsing and analysing the Minister's speech. It contained some interesting observations. There is a view expressed by some people that the Labour Party is statist in its activities in the delivery of certain services that are essential in a modern society. In education, however, we are not statist, we fully support Article 42 of the Constitution in all its ramifications, and recognise the family as the primary centre of education and the right of parents to choose. We fully support the Constitution in that the State should provide for primary education but not necessarily provide primary education.

The history of the configuration of patronage is a history with which we are all familiar; the Tánaiste will be acutely familiar with that divided community in Donegal. All of us would have liked for the Stanley letter to have been upheld and for faith formation to have occurred after school hours within the framework of the buildings but all three religious communities, Catholic, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian, demanded that education be denominational and we have inherited that system. There were great strides in the new curriculum in primary education introduced in 1971. That new curriculum, however, effectively makes the Constitution incapable of delivering and vindicating the right of parents because faith formation is now an integral part of the entire day's work, rather than the old style, where a half hour was set aside for religious formation. We have problems in this that will require a long dialogue to come to a resolution.

A third of my constituents are not Catholics. I do not support the view that the phrases "non-Catholic", "non-national" or "non-believer" are appropriate. We are all believers, everyone has a belief system. In a republic, belief systems, no matter who or what they are, should be respected as the right of the citizen to hold. I believe in atheism; I was brought up in a Catholic household but, like all adults, I take charge of my own life and that is what I believe. I am not a "non-believer", a "non-Catholic" or a "non-national". The language that is used by the Department of Education and Skills is progressive in this area, the phrase "new comer children" is wonderfully welcoming in an area where we must be sensitive.

In my part of the Republic of Ireland, there is now a phenomenon of "compulsory Catholicism", where to get a child into a school in a built-up area where demand exceeds supply, and where previously the Catholic church was welcoming and open, and I never heard a charge of proselytising made against it, the church must ration scarce spaces and it does that by two criteria: a baptismal certificate for the child who wishes to enter the school system and a utility bill in the name of the parents indicating that they live in the community. When the White Paper on education was published in the 1990s, one of the challenges then assessed was how this State would manage the decline in primary school numbers. Last week at the Joint Committee on Education and Science, we heard how we face an explosion in numbers now. Between now and 2016, there could be a 20% increase in the school population.

Demographic predictions like this are easy to make; the children born this evening in Holles Street and the Rotunda will be eligible for primary school entrance in four years. It is impossible, however, to get a school extension through the school building unit in Tullamore in less than five years unless the school is on an emergency track. We are not capable of responding to demand. Children only grow up once, they only go through fourth class once and if they do not learn to read between third and fifth class, they immediately fall behind because for the rest of their education they are reading to learn. We must remember that.

I like the idea of a diversity of choice of patron. I do not hold a candle for any particular group. However, I like the multi-denominational nature of Educate Together. Educate Together has travelled a long path, made some mistakes and corrected earlier decisions, and has come to a conclusion whereby faith formation is provided for in its school buildings but outside school hours.

I will read the Minister's speech and come back to her on it but I will attempt to do justice to it now from memory. She stated in a rather dismissive but highly defensive way — whoever wrote the speech knew exactly what he or she was saying — that in primary schools for 80% of the time there is no distinction or segregation in the classroom, but that for a certain period of time there is segregation for faith formation. When we finally discuss the legislation to give statutory basis for the schools of which she is currently patron, where there is no parental representation, will the Minister or someone on her behalf describe to us what happens during that 20% of time in the classroom when there is segregation? How is that segregation made? I want the House — this republican assembly — to be told exactly how their children will be treated when that 20% of the time occurs, when the four categories of children are labelled, when that principle authority figure — the font of all knowledge — the school teacher, 80% or 90% of whom are women, with all the maternal characteristics that involves states to one group that they belong to the Catholic Church and that they will be taught faith formation; but to another group that it is Christian so must stay in another part of the room; to another that it is Muslim and must stay over there; and to another that they are non-believers. What message in a republic in the 21st century are we giving each other? What is a Donegal Deputy from the edge of the Border saying to the rest of us, from a part of the island ravaged by sectarian divisions?

There is a better model and that is to provide for faith formation and to facilitate parents who want it and to use the resources and to have those resources provided in the school outside school hours. That is what the Stanley letter was about; that is what the original curriculum was about; and that is what Article 42 is about, where parents have the right to send their child to the nearest school even if that is not of the ethos of their choice. Equally, within that right to go to what are predominantly Catholic schools, they have the right to ask that their child be removed from the classroom for the half an hour before break in the morning. However, this is no longer possible because of the new curriculum. I attended Catholic schools week on 28 January where I learned that religion informs the entire day's teaching; there is no 30 minute period when religion or faith formation is provided.

This is about much more than faith formation and ideology. It is about mobilising the beliefs and values of our republican Constitution to the 21st century. It is about recognising the rights of parents, as primary educators in the first instance and as people involved in exercising parental choice. In my constituency, the present system effectively excludes one third of constituents, not counting those who may nominally be Catholics but are catholics with a small "c", as Deputy Hayes stated.

We get great outcomes from our educational system, and this is a tribute to the Department of Education and Skills, the teachers, the VEC and everybody else involved. Notwithstanding our relatively low spend in the educational system we get outcomes that are above average in most areas. This is for a number of reasons, including the quality of our teachers and the educational achievements they are required to have to enter the teaching system; the commitment of all patron bodies in varied forms, and there are first division players and third division players as there are in all walks of life; the extraordinary commitment of the 20,000 volunteers who go on boards of management; the extraordinary lonely and heroic role played by principals in our primary school system, notwithstanding the onus of governance that is incessantly thrust upon them by circulars from the Department of Education and Skills; and, coming back to my first point, the commitment that parents have to education.

The Constitution was drafted in the 1930s, when Europe was preparing to tear itself apart again in a savage world war, more likely a second European civil war if the truth were known, and it reflects the landscape of the demography of this island at that time. That demography has changed. The fastest growing faith group in this country are non-believers, to contradict my earlier exhortation but to put it in language that people can understand. These are people who profess to have no religious belief. They have to be found a place in the same way as a place was found for previous cohorts of Irish citizens in this republic. That is why I endorse fully the request from Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who wants help. He is the biggest patron of primary schools in the country and he wants help from us to divest in an orderly manner so that the remaining schools he has under his patronage can become fully-blown unashamedly Catholic schools. He wants our help and the Minister is refusing it.

She stated she does not like the idea of a forum. She does not want it and her predecessor refused it. What is wrong with the Department of Education and Skills? There is the model of the convention on education chaired by Professor John Coolahan in Dublin Castle. Every stakeholder attended. It is all on the public record. The Catholic archbishop of this diocese, which is the largest diocese in the country, is the biggest patron of primary schools, with just over 500, and he wants our help and asked for it more than a year ago.

The conference that took place at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham last year was a farce. It was announced on the eve of the INTO conference as a headline grabber. Anyone who participated in it — I was not able to do so because we were not invited properly but I could not have gone anyway — stated it was a series of statements and there was no dialogue. We had the forum on a new Ireland, and fora on Europe. We have been very good at resolving differences and respecting individuality in citizens through social partnership in other areas. Let us go down that proven path, which has worked in other areas where there cannot be consensus.

Whatever we do, we must not disrupt the day job. A child comes of age only once. Children's experience and learning in the classroom is so precious and unique that people like me, administrators in education and those concerned with it cannot disrupt it. Whatever way we conduct the rest of this debate, it must be in the knowledge and understanding that the day job, conducted by parents, teachers and pupils, will continue undisrupted.

Gabhaim buíochas agus fáilte as an deis labhairt ar an cheist rí-thábhachtach seo. Ceist ámharach í seo lenar cóir dúinn déileáilleí i bhfad roimhe seo.

There is a desperate need for diversity in our schools, especially in an Ireland which is growing to include many different cultures, nationalities and religions. Everyone will be in agreement when I state that the structure we have at present is outdated and unsustainable. The separation of church and State must be completed. Today, the State pays for education through capitation grants, teachers' salaries and a range of other funding. This funding is not enough but we will not go into that. The vast majority of primary and secondary schools are not under democratic control. They are predominantly under the patronage of Catholic bishops and in the ownership of the Catholic Church. This is a legacy of an old era of ecclesiastical power and control. This must change and we must move to a democratically-controlled education system, truly representative of the community we have today and respecting the rights of people of all religions and none, and a school system that is totally children-centred.

There is a clear need for change and the Catholic Church itself has acknowledged an oversupply of Catholic national schools, and has recognised the need for a far more balanced provision to the benefit of all providers. The structure of primary education is out of synch with stated population preferences. Some 98% of our schools are under some denominational control while only 58% of parents support continued church management.

The Educate Together model of primary schools mentioned by other Deputies and the long-established model of multi-denominational secondary schools under the patronage of vocational education committees, VECs, have provided a template of where we need to go from here. VECs must be supported, strengthened and given the structures needed to provide multi and non-denominational schools in a manner which is wholly accountable and managed by the community. In my area I have been lobbied by quite a number of constituents who want their children to be educated in multi-denominational schools, of which there are already a number which are quite successful.

The Portobello Educate Together start-up group is seeking recognition so that it can establish a multi-denominational school which is needed to serve an area with a large population, that is, Dublin 2, 6, 8 and 12. The start-up group involves 180 parents at this stage and has pre-enrolment forms completed for more than 100 children. It has also secured temporary premises. I call on the Minister to act now to make this school available to the children in the constituency in time for September 2011 at the latest. This can be done by making provision for an additional school, which is the desired model, or by intervening to secure the prompt transfer of patronage from one of the existing Catholic schools. I understand the education secretary of the Dublin archdiocese indicated that transferring patronage of a school in the area to a multi-denominational patron is something it was quite open to considering. That needs to be progressed and the Minister's intervention in this is necessary to accelerate this process.

When it comes to the delivery of primary education parental choice must be recognised as a paramount consideration. I have been lobbied by the parents to which I referred and others who have had their children on several waiting lists for multi-denominational schools since birth, but in many cases there is no chance that they will manage to get the school of their choice because there are not enough Educate Together non-denominational schools in the area to meet the demand.

Griffith Barracks National School is another Educate School which is quite successful and is bursting at the seams. It was recognised by the Department because it said it could go the public private partnership route. The public private partnership collapsed and the school is still in old barracks which was unfit for soldiers but which is now being used for a school. The school did a great deal of work to try to ensure it is fit for use as a school. It also uses prefabricated buildings. That situation cannot continue. A new building, built by the State, is needed. It should not be procured through public private partnership but through investment because it is an investment in education.

Another situation which is absolutely scandalous is that of gaelscoileanna. A new gaelscoil has not received recognition since 2008. This State should create demand for gaelscoileanna, not answer the demand — ag cruthú éilimh seachas é a shásamh. Níl an Stát ag sásamh an éileamh atá ann do ghaelscoileanna ar fud na tíre. Níl aon aitheantas á thabhairt ag an Stát do ghaelscoileanna nua agus níl an cuma air go n-athróidh sé sin i mbliana. A new gaelscoil will not be granted patronage for 2010 and this is a terrible indictment of the Government's unwillingness to accept that demographics are changing and that parents are choosing to have their children educated through Irish. They have a right to do so and the State needs to facilitate that right.

Gabhaim comhghairdeas leo siúd atá ag déanamh seasaimh chróga ar son Gaelscoil Ráth Tó. Tá na tuismitheoirí ag iarraidh a chinntiú go bhfuil a bpáistí oilte tríd an teanga oifigiúil náisiúnta. Cuireann an streachailt atá ar bun acu feachtas eile i gcuimhne dom — na hiarrachtaí a rinne mo chlann agus clanna eile go luath sna 1970í chun scoil Dhún Chaoin a chosaint. Tá sé náireach go bhfuil an Stát ag iarraidh cosc a chur ar ghaelscoileanna nua. Bhí dream ag iarraidh gaelscoile a bhunú i mo cheantar féin, ach tá an cinneadh curtha ar athló go dtí go bhfuil an Stát agus an Roinn ag díriú isteach ar cheist na gaelscolaíochta. Tá éileamh do ghaelscoileanna i mBaile Átha Cliath 12, i mBaile Átha Cliath 8, i mBaile Átha Cliath 10 agus i go leor ceantair eile sa tír. Dá mbeadh an Stát sásta tacaíocht cheart a thabhairt dóibh, bheadh na scoileanna seo in ann maireachtáil agus borradh.

The gaelscoil in Ráth Tó will open in September 2010 regardless of the decision of the State not to acknowledge it and which has refused it patronage. There is huge demand for the gaelscoil but the Department refuses to differentiate between new schools on the basis of the language of tuition. This means that the Irish language rights of parents and children are being disregarded. That cannot continue. We need serious change in the criteria for recognition of new schools, which is currently stacked against the Irish language schools, the result of which is that no new Gaelscoil has been approved since 2008 and there is no indication to date that the Government and Department are willing to move on that situation, mo náire sibh.

I referred to my area. In replies to parliamentary questions which I put to the Minister she seems to avoid giving direct answers to direct questions regarding my constituency and that never bodes well. In her most recent response she stated that a technical group is considering "the issue of how best to measure or gauge the views of parents in relation to diversity of school provision in a locality". The instance of Portobello Educate Together, for which 180 parents are formally seeking a multi-denominational school and the 200 or 300 children on a waiting list for Griffith Barracks Educate Together and Ranelagh Educate Together, respectively, speaks for itself. There are thousands of parents who have children on waiting lists for gaelscoileanna, which also speaks for itself.

I invite the Minister to give a commitment that the Government will provide multi-denominational schools for all of these children and will expedite and give serious consideration to the transfer of patronage from existing Catholic schools if the Catholic Church, as it seems to have indicated to date, is willing to consider this. If such a transfer cannot happen then the State has to step in and build schools. The investment by the State in schools could be part of the reconstruction of our economy. It could create schools to meet the demand up and down the country and deal with the issues of patronage, prefabricated buildings, parental choice and language choice for children at the same time.

Diversity in schools also means recognising the differing strengths and weaknesses of the individual students. Programmes such as the leaving certificate applied, the leaving certificate vocational programme and Youthreach have made huge inroads into combating disadvantage and offering a different type of education for different needs. Such programmes should be protected and championed.

I refer to another issue. Senior Traveller training centres will be subject to a 25% cut this summer, a cut equivalent to 300 places across the State. It is no good talking about diversity in the education system when this Government is slashing funding from one of the most marginalised groups in society.

Such a cut should not happen. If the Government is serious about promoting diversity in schools, it should not proceed with any of the cuts which will undermine the great work done to deliver diversity in our education system.

There is a need for us to move on as a society, to provide more choice in our education system, to throw out the archaic system of religious control over education and to recognise the different levels of ability in education. The Government has an opportunity to take a stand. It must be imaginative and realise this issue will not go away. We are growing up as a society and our education system must reflect that, but it will not do so if we implement cuts to the detriment of the key component of an education system, the child. If those cuts continue, they will have a detrimental effect on the education of the child and on parents and society as a whole.

I urge the Minister to recognise and invest in Educate Together schools which have jumped through every hoop put in place by the Department. As soon as they reach a target, the criteria changes or the Department blocks it. That is the biggest scandal. These groups work voluntarily; they are not paid officials or Deputies. These people come together and put their time and effort into planning. When a target is reached, the rules and regulations change or there is a delay for another two or three years. The Minister and the Government are delaying recognition of these schools which have met all the criteria. That issue must be addressed.

I call on the Minister and the Government to change their stance and invest in these schools, not in prefabricated buildings but in proper buildings. If we invest in them now, it will pay dividends over time. This should not be done by way of public private partnerships but by the State. That commitment would show the children and the parents that the State respects their education and contribution to the education system.

I wish to share time with the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Ciarán Cuffe. De bharr nach bhfuil ach cúig nóiméid agam, déanfaidh mé trí phointe réasúnta tapaidh.

Along with Deputy Ó Snodaigh, I have a particular interest in Gaelscoileanna. I hope the Department will consider to where a primary school pupil should go after attending a Gaelscoil. Tá easpa meánscoileanna ann. I mo cheantar féin, tá Gaelscoil Bhaile Brigín, Gaelscoil Ros Eo, Gaelscoil Bhrian Bóroimhe agus Gaelscoil an Duinnínigh. Dá bhrí sin, tá meánscoil ag teastáil. Tá plean ann chun gaelcholáiste — Coláiste Ghlór na Mara — a bhunú i mBaile Brigín. Tá breis is 300 dalta ar an liosta cláraithe. Bunófar an gaelcholáiste sin, le cúnamh Dé. Iarraim ar an Aire Oideachais agus Scileanna tacaíocht a thabhairt don phlean agus an gaelcholáiste a cheadú go luath.

Even before we deal with ownership and patronage, we need to iron out a few ground rules, or perhaps establish some new ones. We must make applying for a place in a primary school more straightforward for parents who are very often left in a desperate situation full of uncertainty having applied to every primary school in an area. In a growing area like my area of north county Dublin, parents might have to apply to up to eight schools and, metaphorically speaking, prostrate themselves and ask for a place for their child. They may not hear anything for months.

A parent I spoke to today heard nothing and was given no hope only to be offered three places for her child. The three principals in that case are working in splendid isolation and are, in effect, offering a place three times over.

We have a well established system for our third level institutions in the Central Applications Office. It should not be beyond our imagination and ingenuity for each town to have a standard form on which parents put schools in order of preference. The information could be processed in a straightforward and transparent way. The State would know from where applications were coming and parents would know the system was transparent.

The form could come with the first child benefit payment.

When Deputy Quinn is Minister for Education and Skills, he will no doubt act on that immediately. We have that system at third level and it could be adapted to suit the needs at primary school level. I look forward to that happening.

The parent I spoke to today who was offered three places already has a daughter in another school which did not offer a place because it has an enrolment policy whereby the child comes first and the family does not get a look in so in the case of two siblings, the other sibling can go somewhere else. There is a fundamental question not only about the right of the child, but also about the right of the child within the family and the stress being placed on the family by having to embark on not only one school journey in one direction, but on another school journey in another direction. What is a single parent to do — make choices about which child arrives late at school or which child is left standing outside the school gate because the other child must be brought into the school? While I fully agree with the ethos of and the reasoning behind the Educate Together movement, there is an essential flaw there whereby each child is taken at face value and siblings are not considered in the overall picture.

I refer to green schools. I heard on "Morning Ireland" that the Minister of State, Deputy Cuffe, visited a school yesterday to encourage the minimisation of transport to and from school for social and environmental reasons. That is an issue we could grasp in enrolment policy. Let us consider the family as well as the child to minimise the stress and trauma involved.

I endorse everything Deputy Sargent said. The more clarity we can bring to the procedure, the better. Prospective parents are often baffled by the admission procedure and by the Department of Education and Skills website. All they want is clarity as to what to do and what chance they have of getting their child into a particular school, and I am only talking about parents from Ireland. When one talks to parents who have come here from abroad, they are completely mystified by the procedure for admission to schools.

A good first step for the Minister would be to start with the Department of Education and Skills website. Before I came into the House today, I logged onto the website and clicked the "about us" button, although there was nothing there. I know quite a bit about the Minister and about how the Department operates, so the least we could do is to provide some good, clear information on the Department of Education and Skills website, which I think is stuck in 1996. For a minimum effort, we could get a maximum result. That is part of a process which has perhaps become unduly politicised over the years. Once we get into the area of criteria, they must be verifiable.

I looked at the bands for school projects. The bands are obviously divided in sub-bands. I could not find verifiable criteria as to how we define the level of priority of a school. Is a rapidly developing area one developing by 1%, 3% or 5%? If one cannot verify something, it is prone to interpretation, tweaking and political patronage.

That is a dangerous road to follow. We should put this information into the public domain and it should be verifiable, whether by CSO or Department of Education and Innovation statistics. The sooner we move towards that objective, the better.

This debate has to a large extent focused on the earthquake that has shook the Catholic Church in Ireland. We have to re-examine our systems of patronage. Parents should be able to send their children to primary schools which are close to where they live, in which either Irish or English is spoken and which offer a choice of religious patronage. These simple choices should be available to every child in this State.

We also need to investigate the issue of designating schools as disadvantaged. In a sense, this is an on-off button approach in that either a school is designated or it is not. A sliding scale would be more appropriate because designation carries considerable baggage, if not stigma. By making available a broad range of supports ranging from schools which need major help in overcoming demographic, social and economic difficulties to ones which are doing well, we could break down some of our assumptions about schools in certain areas.

All I could find from the Department's website was a list of areas that have experienced significant growth. During a recent Adjournment debate, an Opposition Deputy produced a clear map which showed in colour coded form the exact level of growth experienced by various areas. That type of information should be available from the Department's website without the need for a freedom of information request.

The Minister is not long in her new job and she faces a major task. The headline issue of the day is reducing our excessive dependence on the churches. I have touched on several areas in which change can be implemented, including the simple step of improving the front end of the Department's website. I wish the Minister well in her work.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. The Minister stated that she will get from within the ranks of this House a sufficient variety of views to allow her to make a final decision on progress and reform but perhaps she is overestimating the variation of opinion among Deputies. It is important that she would open the debate to the partners in the education system, namely, parents, school patrons, the churches and other interested parties. I welcome that she has initiated a debate in this House so that we can make our views known. We have waited two years for this debate and I commend her on taking this initiative so soon after taking up her current responsibilities.

Interest in this issue resulted in large part from the controversy that arose from the requirement that children have baptismal certificates to enter certain primary schools. This set an unfortunate tone for the debates that followed but, thank God, that has passed.

The Archbishop of Dublin made an important intervention when he suggested that the church should consider divesting its patronage of schools. While we must recognise that is unlikely to happen in certain traditional places such as small rural schools, reform is already occurring in major urban areas through Educate Together and Gaelscoileanna. I acknowledge the fantastic work being done by the people behind these initiatives. As Deputy Quinn noted, they acted swiftly to rectify mistakes as soon as they were identified.

The increase in the number of Gaelscoileanna throughout the country has brought a significant advance in Irish education, particularly in regard to the language. No distinction is made among children attending Gaelscoileanna, who come from working and middle class backgrounds and include groups which may have stronger views on education at primary level.

I am glad today's debate has not focused on religion as a problem in education. I feared the central question would be faith-based education, whether Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland or non-denominational but, thank God, this has not been the case. I hope the debate will proceed on the basis of community spirit. The most important question is how a child's education can be best delivered by the people charged with this responsibility. We must emphasise the importance of parents, as a child's first educators, and the teachers who provide an education in the absence of parents during the school day. The other issues, such as patronage, churches and bishops, pale into insignificance in comparison.

A headline published today in a national newspaper referred to a church demand for additional payments towards maintenance and the existence of a huge divide.

It was completely misleading.

I am delighted somebody else shares my view. Some of the media commentary on these matters has been irresponsible and I hope commentators will in future be fair and, at the very least, offer an opportunity to everyone to participate in the debate. It must be acknowledged, regardless of one's religious beliefs, that the Catholic Church has made a fantastic contribution to education over the years. When resources were scarce they were nevertheless found, by whatever means, and efforts made to improve conditions for the delivery of education. In order for children to be educated properly they must be content in the environment in which they are being taught. Whatever resources are needed, within reason, should be made available to provide the best possible facilities for children in schools.

I listened to what Deputy Quinn had to say about the segregation of pupils for 20% of the school day or week. Given the increased diversity of our society, the prospect of the vocational education committees coming on board to provide a community-based education model, with parents, professionals and administrators represented, is welcome. Any school that has not yet adopted a patron should give serious consideration to that model. As Deputy Quinn said, it is important that there be transparency in the arrangements for the segregation of children during religious instruction and that no pupil is banished to the back of a class.

Unfortunately, that is what is happening.

Yes, it is happening in certain areas. In terms of who is to blame, I am afraid to point a finger——

The Department signed up to it.

Yes. Will the Tánaiste ensure a process is in place whereby that can be monitored and vetted? Where it is found that there is sidelining of particular groups, there should be an obligation on the Tánaiste and her Department to rectify it as a matter of urgency. The danger is that it is always difficult to change any system that has taken root in a school. A suitable accommodation must be made for those children whose parents do not want them to partake in religious instruction.

That is agreed.

I welcome this timely debate and am encouraged by Members' constructive contributions. Most Deputies requested that ideology be left out of the debate and, fortunately, that has been the case thus far. There was a concern that the debate might be used as an occasion to beat up the Catholic Church. The Ryan report was published a year ago and since then we have had the Murphy report. However, we must set aside our outrage at the findings of those reports for the purposes of this debate. We must discuss the issue in a calm and rational way, which is how the debate is thus far proceeding. Legacy issues in regard to child abuse and so on must be set apart from our deliberations today. The Dáil, as the forum of the people's representatives, has a crucial role to play in the national debate, as the Tánaiste said.

My constituency of Dublin North Central is a settled constituency whose population declined in the last census. The majority of schools in the constituency are Catholic and most parents, regardless of their religion, are pleased to send their children to the local school for various reasons, including that it is local and convenient. The local Catholic school usually has a great tradition in the community and a good reputation and the school principal and teachers are well known. First Holy Communion and Confirmation are big days in the parish. However, there are increasing calls, even in my constituency, for other options such as Educate Together schools. It is important that the needs and interests of those parents are recognised.

There has been much reference in this debate to the new arrangements for the recognition of primary schools. A Bill will come before the House shortly to give legal recognition to that, which will offer further scope for debate on these issues. In regard to faith formation, we are seeing a genuine attempt to deal with a complex area. It is important to acknowledge that a significant portion of parents want their children to receive faith formation during the course of the school day. That has been a feature of our education system for generations, but we now have a far greater diversity of faiths in the State. As the Tánaiste said earlier, is it not better, in accordance with parents' wishes, that children of different faiths are educated under one roof for the majority of their school day rather than being sent to different buildings on opposite sides of the town in order that they receive the faith element of their education. The community national school model is a new approach. We will get aspects right but there inevitably will be a need for modifications as we see how it works in practice. Practical issues arising in respect of religious instruction will offer lessons for the further roll-out of the model and it will continue to be monitored carefully. I give that assurance to the House.

I welcome the initiative by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin in regard to the divesting of schools. I welcome the discussions that have taken place with the Department of Education and Skills and the work the Department is doing in this regard. It will be difficult to move it on to the next phase and there undoubtedly will be controversies at a local level. We must have widespread local consultation when the proposals are brought forward. The Catholic Church will have a crucial role to play in that regard and in ensuring the proposals that emerge are practical and enjoy broad support. I welcome all these developments without underestimating the difficulties we face in proceeding with this task.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this discussion. There has been much recent debate in the print media, on the airwaves and in other public fora in respect of the patronage of primary and second level schools. It is unfortunate that the public commentary has not always been balanced. Today's debate is essential and has been constructive thus far. It is timely given the significant changes we have witnessed in our society in recent decades. As a result of the rapid pace of social and demographic change, we have a radically altered and far more diverse society from which school communities are drawn. This benefits young learners because it breaks down barriers, prejudices, attitudes and stigmas.

I concur with Deputy Quinn's view on the dreadful term "non-national". I do not know what is the origin of the word. We are all born somewhere and we are all going somewhere. "Newcomer" is a much more welcoming and inclusive term. When young children enter the playground at the start of their primary education, they do not regard themselves or others as different. Religion is not an issue and the school is viewed as a community in which parents, who are the primary educators, teachers, the board of management and patrons work together for one purpose only, namely, the educational benefit of the children entrusted to their care. This is a major responsibility on schools.

The majority of schools are still under the patronage of the Catholic Church. I recognise the role Catholic schools have played in the provision of education. They have been to the forefront of the educational system and have played a prominent role in welcoming children from diverse backgrounds. The challenge for these schools in future will be the need to change the composition of schooling.

Ireland has a history of diversity in education, one which reflects the diverse needs and aspirations of learners and recognises that the education system must be responsive and dynamic if we are to meet the challenges of rapid regional and global change. The debate on plurality of patronage often overlooks the fact that the State has for a long time provided a multidenominational alternative to denominational schools at second level. The community national school at primary level is a new model. As it is in transition, it will get certain things right and others wrong and will make whatever changes are required. The new model is being piloted in two schools under the County Dublin Vocational Educational Committee.

VECs have a proven track record, with more than 80 years experience in the management of second level schools. The committees are democratic in the purest sense, consisting of elected public representatives and representatives of all relevant stakeholders. They operate an open, transparent and accountable model of corporate governance. I am aware that the Irish Vocational Education Association and Educate Together were in negotiations during which common ground was found. I ask that these talks resume to further explore a model for the future.

Parents want choice. I am upset when I hear of cases of people queueing for two or three days to get their children into school or, as in the case of a person to whom I spoke recently, put the names of their newborn children on waiting lists for a primary school place.

Parents want schools in which their children will be safe. I am particularly mindful of this given that it is the anniversary of the publication of the Ryan report. Parents also want schools in which the standard of teaching and learning is high. While I agree with Deputies Brian Hayes and Ruairí Quinn that patronage is important, many of the parents to whom I speak are not obsessed with the issue. In recognising the importance of patronage we must, however, continue to focus on the quality of teaching and learning. Our children are given only one chance and we must ensure that they have an opportunity to avail of a positive learning experience and reach their full potential.

I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak in this important and long overdue debate. There is no doubt that we live in changing times. Ireland's demographics have changed dramatically in the past 15 years and we have many new cultures. The country has modernised and acquired a diverse outlook in a very short period. It is essential that we accept and reflect this diversity in our schooling and education systems.

At the same time, it is not necessary to throw out everything that is traditional or has stood the test of time. Much of our education system is of a high quality, particularly at primary level. Given that the system is not broken, we must be careful about initiating a process of fixing it.

What is certain is that we do not have sufficient school places. This is not a question of diversity but one of practical numbers. The problem is probably most acute in Dublin. While I do not wish to be parochial, I will speak from experience. Deputy Quinn, my constituency colleague, will be familiar with a number of problem areas in Dublin South-East. The statistics and figures used by the Department to justify its failure to provide an adequate number of school places are either phoney or erroneous. The Minister, to whom I extend best wishes in her new role, has an opportunity at the beginning of her term of office to address this problem.

An excellent school under the patronage of the Catholic Church in Donnybrook, my local parish, is turning away 50 or 60 applicants every year. As the logical outcome of a process, the problem should have been foreseen. A number of traditional schools in the area, which were under the patronage of various institutions, have closed down and the sites sold to developers. Mount St. Anne's in Milltown is one such example. Many of the apartments and units built on these sites were family-sized homes. It was inevitable, therefore, that the families who moved into them would have children. They now find that their children have nowhere to go to school such is the extraordinary level of demand for school places in the area. Parents who put the names of newborn children on waiting lists for primary school places are finding that places are not available in local schools. This is a major inconvenience.

The Government must, almost above all else, prioritise the constitutional right to education because educational opportunities for young children are the bedrock of society, the economy and our future. I ask the Minister to take cognisance of this and ensure she does not deal with the issue lightly.

Diversity is centred on parental choice. Deputy Burke spoke eloquently of parents being the primary educators. Parents have a right to be engaged in this debate, which should take place on a formal basis, and a right to choose the type and ethos of school for their children. Certain people would love to use the recent horrific scandals in the Catholic Church as a stick with which to beat the church. Momentum is building to divest the Catholic Church of the patronage of schools around the country. I have grave reservations about this approach.

Few of those involved are parents.

I was about to make the same point. The majority of parents who have children in schools under the patronage of the Catholic Church are happy with these schools and there is considerable demand for places in them. As I stated, however, many parents find it impossible to secure access to these schools for their children. It would be a retrograde step to pander to some of the interest groups which appear to be hell bent on removing the Catholic Church from education. Let us remember the enormous contribution the Catholic Church and other religious institutions have made to educating young people in this country.

The bottom line is that the quality and standard of a child's education is what matters. Parents must be allowed to shop around and choose what type of education is best for their child. That is the right of the parent and is not the role of the State. Education begins at home. The role of the State is facilitation for parents in identifying the best possible education opportunities for their children. There is a risk that the State would assume an interfering role in education. It is about facilitation, but the primary educators should always be the parents.

I acknowledge that there are possibly too many schools under the patronage of the Catholic Church. Many people within the institution of the Catholic Church would also agree. It is necessary to offer more schools, but a diversity of schools of other religious backgrounds and multi-denominational schools. There is a demand from some parents for multi-denominational schools. There is a very successful school in my constituency with a waiting list as long as my arm.

There are 300 on the list.

There is a huge demand for multi-denominational secondary level schooling as well. That needs to be a priority, but it does not have to be at the expense of religious education. Instead, it should complement it by providing the choice that we are all talking about.

In the provision of a diverse form of education, we do not want to see a land grab by the State. A national takeover by the State of schools under church patronage is not something parents want. It would be very damaging to the education system in this country, which has stood us in good stead. In other jurisdictions with state-run primary and secondary schools, it seems that people try to get out of such systems because the standard is simply too low. The schools are not competitive and the standard of education suffers. We only have to look across the water to the UK to see what has happened, where people are getting children baptised and attending mass in a desperate attempt to get their children out of the state schools and into the church patronised schools because the latter are better. We need to acknowledge the quality we have here and do not throw it away in order to pander to some form of political correctness that does not reflect the wishes of parents or the needs of children. The quality of state-run schools is very questionable in other jurisdictions and we need to be wary of going down that road.

This is a very important debate. We need wide-ranging discussions with all of the stakeholders in education, including parents, the different institutions, teachers and teaching unions. We have to elevate parents to equal partners in this debate. Formal consultation is what is needed, or a national convention on education, as has been proposed by our spokesperson on education, Deputy Brian Hayes. If we go down the role of formalising the role of parents in that dialogue, we can come to a very successful outcome that will serve this country very well into the future. That is what this is all about.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to participate in the debate on the diversification of primary school provision. I want to acknowledge the patronage handed down over the years by the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland, and the introduction in recent years of An Foras Pátrúnachta for gaelscoileanna and Educate Together. I recognise the composition of the boards of all the schools, particularly those handed down over the years, and the people who worked as volunteers and did a wonderful job. The job was quite easy most of the time until something difficult occurred, such as when the standard of teaching in the school was called into question. Then the responsibility on the shoulders of those volunteers came to the fore. They were people of great generosity of spirit and they ensured that the best education was given at the time.

I largely agree with Deputy Creighton that we should not try to fix what is not broken. We were extremely fortunate to have the calibre of people who worked on those boards over the years. I was a member of the board of management of the VEC community colleges in north Tipperary and a member of the board of management of one primary school in Nenagh.

We must recognise diversity, but in attempting to do so, we must also recognise the importance of faith-based and morality-based education as integral parts of the curriculum. We know that most parents want to continue with children in a faith-based experience, be it Christian, non-Christian, Islamic or whatever. People who practise their faiths value them very much, and I believe that this should be part of the school experience for primary school children.

I also recognise that there are parents who do not want that experience for their children. They should be facilitated, but there should be room for everybody in the one school for that diversity. It is an enormous challenge for the Minister to undertake. In our attempt to address diversity, we should not throw out the faith-based experience that has been very valuable over the years in our schools. After all, we can develop the physical and mental well being of pupils, but we should not dismiss as trivial the spiritual development of children in our schools, regardless of their religious faith.

The presence of religious symbols in our schools should remain, whether they be Islamic, Christian or whatever. There should be a place for the crucifix in our classrooms, or symbols that are important to other faiths, which will truly recognise the diversity of faiths in Ireland.

I have taken account of our community national school model, which has been spearheaded by the VECs. Let us pay tribute to the VECs across our country. When success was obvious under gaelscoileanna, the VECs stepped in to provide gaelcholáistí across the country. There is a very clear role for the VEC into the future. I have observed the pilot projects currently under way at County Dublin VEC and these will be followed next September in Kildare and Meath. The VECs have endeavoured over the years to include an ethos of recognition and respect for all beliefs, both religious and non-religious. That is a model we should watch closely. There will be flaws along the way, but the VECs have a proven track record of inclusiveness and this can be developed.

Patrons have an enormous responsibility, whether it is school ethos, the management of assets and the appointment of staff. It is important that people from all the representative stakeholders are part of boards of management and that the diversity is reflected in the composition of those boards.

There should be more debate on this issue. It is extremely important and will prepare us for the future development of our education system.

I welcome the debate and the wider debate on patronage. As society changes it is important to have this debate and I welcome the Minister's commitment to having this debate so early. The 2006 census identified my part of the country as having the fastest growing population under the age of 14. As a result it might be no surprise that we seem to have spent the past ten years building schools. We were obviously delighted, as most people would be, with the church's long and fine tradition of service in primary education in all our parishes. I am a Catholic and when the bishop advised our parish that he would no longer be involved in the patronage of the next school, we wondered where we would go from there. While that is what today's debate is chiefly about, we should not forget the great role the Catholic Church has played and continues to play in schools in all our parishes.

I want to consider the schools opening in 2010 and raise the issue of the gaelscoileanna. In the past 20 years Educate Together has established many schools and now has 56 schools with a further two opening in September. Two schools are open under the new community national school model with three more to open in September. I am concerned that no gaelscoil has opened in the past three years. While there are 138 gaelscoileanna in the country, it is an issue we need to address. I agree with the Department's review of the situation. Prior to now a school might have been established without necessarily matching the demographic need. While in my parish a gaelscoil is being established this year, it is being established as a private school because it does not match the demographic need. I understand the Department's point that the system up to 2008 meant that people could establish a school first and then see the requirement thereafter. Some new schools in other areas needed to be established at short notice to meet the surge of demand, as we have seen around the Dublin area. Some schools were being established in areas where the population was not growing or was declining. I agree with the Minister in those concerns. While some of those schools were being established in areas of declining population, in the area where I live we just need to establish a school. The demographic need and having a place in the education system for every child needs to be the first requirement, after which we can enter the minefield of the patronage question.

I join previous speakers in voicing my support for the VEC model. The VEC has a proven track record with the new community national school model that has been established. It recognises the wishes of parents to have their children receive faith-based education as an integral part of the school curriculum. That is important for me as a parent and is important for many parents whom I represent. The VEC model is to be encouraged in that it provides that opportunity. I echo what Deputy Conlon said about the VEC and Educate Together working together. We need more people talking to each other. It is the options for children and parents that are important. It is important that the main faiths in the schools can be accommodated in the teaching of religion during the school day in accordance with the wishes of parents.

In response to a point made by Deputy Quinn earlier, it depends on the part of the country from which one comes. I come from a part of the country where the demographics were not easy to predict. Deputy Quinn said it is easy to predict that five years after a child is born he or she will go to school. In the year my child was born, 30 children were born in our parish but 120 five year olds started school. It is not easy to predict. As we know, most of those people moved out from the Dublin area.

The Deputy's part of the country would be the exception rather than the norm.

I make the point that there is an exceptional demographic aspect to it. While I accept this is a minefield, I am glad we are debating it because we need to address many issues. We have the demographic need that has led to increased demand in the area in which I live. There is also the issue of religious provision during the school day. It is of concern that no gaelscoil has been approved in the past few years. Did the Department receive applications where the patron was gaelscoil and the demographic need existed? I would support the reasoning that the demographic need must back it up. Let us have gaelscoileanna and let us have schools where the demographic requirement exists.

I call Deputy Tuffy. She may have difficulty getting to ten minutes.

On 8 April RTE broadcast a "Prime Time" programme about the new community primary school model that operates in Dublin. It featured footage from ScoilChoilm community national school in Porterstown. After it was broadcast a number of complaints about the programme were made to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. I watched the programme. It had footage of the pupils and teachers in the school. Various people were interviewed followed by a panel discussion involving Paul Rowe, the chief executive of Educate Together, and a representative of the Catholic Church. Without knowing more detail of the programme, from the outset I felt it was very unfair and unbalanced. The manner in which it used footage of the children in their classes in the school was unethical. It showed footage depicting the segregation of students within a class, which was staged. RTE insisted that the teachers did that for the purposes of the camera that was filming in the class, which was disgraceful. One parent was featured in that footage. That person was not a parent of one of the children in the school but was a parent who had nothing to do with the school who was campaigning for an Educate Together school in the area. The background of some of the people featured in the programme was revealed but the background of some of the other people who were critical of the school model was not revealed in the programme or in the panel discussion afterwards.

Although the programme was about the VEC model of national school and about a particular school, the VEC was not invited to take part in the panel discussion afterwards. Instead it had a representative of an educational body that is campaigning for a particular model of school and in reality is in competition with the VEC for school patronage. That is fair enough given that education is about choice and so on. A representative of the Catholic Church was also on the panel. Those were two people not directly connected with the school, resulting in a very unbalanced discussion among the panel afterwards. That was not the fault of the members of the panel but the fault of the makers of the "Prime Time" programme.

RTE needs to review how it carries out some of those "Prime Time" programmes. The programme used footage of primary schoolchildren in a programme that denigrated the school they attended. The parents and the teachers in the school were very angry and upset about the programme.

Subsequently, the parents were reported in the local media as being happy with the school. Those parents, teachers and children have invested time and interest in that school which is a pilot school. Just as Educate Together and the Catholics schools have had to change their model as they went along and learned how certain aspects did not work and to try something new, I presume it will be same for this school model. Those parents are working for that school and the way RTE made the programme was a disgrace.

One of the local media outlets, Community Voice, interviewed the principal and some of the parents from the school. The principal, Teresa Lowe, said she did not think the programme was fair or equitable in its depiction of the school. She felt RTE had a particular agenda in making the programme and that the presenter, Emma O’Kelly, portrayed the situation from her own perspective to underpin that agenda. Mr. Michael Guilfoyle, a parent with a daughter in the school, told Community Voice that the programme implied there was segregation in the school and division between the children based on their religious beliefs. This is the complete opposite of what the school stands for. The principal pointed out that although she was interviewed for half an hour, none of that interview was used in the programme. The only local parent interviewed has no children in the school and had been involved in an unsuccessful attempt to set up an Educate Together school in the area some years ago.

It is on record that Emma O'Kelly specifically asked the teachers to set up the separation of the children for her to film and, according to the principal, "then presented it as if it were a regular event and as an example of segregation and division in the school". The whole thing was stage-managed to present a very wrong impression of the school.

Another parent stated that this school helps children understand other religions and beliefs which means they can bring this understanding into the wider world. That needs to be noted because I do not know if there will be any further coverage regarding that programme or what will happen as a result of complaints made to the broadcasting authority. Many people would have watched that programme and taken it to be fact. I took a look at it and could see it was unbalanced but some people have expressed comments to me that indicate they took the programme to be factual and a fair presentation of the situation. It was not. RTE must look at that issue again.

To return to the general debate we must ask what is important to people. I am a politician, who, before I had a child in school, dealt with many parents who were trying to get their children into school in the Lucan area. If we were to do a survey on this, the most important point for people would be to have local schools. They campaign to have access to a local school and to have a school place. They want a good school. People are moving towards a preference for co-education and there is also a growing demand for multi-denomational schools. Parents want their schools to be inclusive and their children to be educated to be good people. That is the ethos concerning which most people would have common ground — a good education. I agree with this. In practice, and from my experience, many if not most Catholic schools are, in effect, multi-cultural and many are even multi-denominational. They are good schools; the parents work hard for them and, in most cases, the teachers provide a good education. Obviously, there are particular examples that can be used to oppose this but it is my experience and I believe it to be the reality. Catholic schools have contributed a great deal to our educational system and we must acknowledge that. That is not to say there are not issues that must be addressed.

In terms of how we move forward, the Labour Party's idea of a forum on patronage is the way. One cannot simply say, "That's it. Let's get rid of the church out of education". That would be wrong. That is not the way to deal with issues. One brings on board and involves the stakeholders. A forum on patronage would be a way to do that, involving the Catholic Church, which has so much to provide in terms of experience and the work it does, and, similarly, the Church of Ireland schools and people from different faiths and of none, agnostics or atheists. Everybody has a contribution to make to this debate and we all have common ground. Ultimately, we all want our children to be educated well and to turn out as kind good people.

I do not wish to pre-empt any discussion that will take place but I am in favour of a State model of national education. People talk as if we have never dealt with these issues before but at second level the vocational educational committee has been putting forward multi-denomational and co-educational education for years and has been really successful in bringing on board the different faiths. In my area there are the Church of Ireland and the Catholic Church, and now there are Muslims and other faiths. The VEC has brought in those involved and has developed community schools and community college models where one might be the child of a doctor or a plumber, or someone who otherwise might drop out of school early. The VEC tries to cater for all those people and has been a successful model. It produced our recent Oscar winner who came from Ballyfermot College of Further Education. It is possible to do this because it has been done at second level. We should try to do something similar at primary level.

I am obliged to call the Minister at 3.20 p.m. There are three speakers left, Deputies Seán Ó Fearghaíl, Mattie McGrath and Paul Connaughton. We shall try to divide the time on that basis, with less than 15 minutes remaining. I call Deputy Ó Fearghaíl.

Tá áthas orm cúpla focal a rá ar an ábhar rí-thábhachtach seo. Tá mé ag roinnt mo chuid ama leis an Teachta Mattie McGrath.

Any discussion on diversification of primary education provision must begin with an acknowledgment of the tremendous contribution made to date by denominational schools. Clearly, it is impossible to quantify the entirety of the contribution made by these schools or by the church men and women and religious members who devoted their entire lives to educating generations of Irish people. We now know that a small cohort of these people betrayed public trust by committing unspeakable crimes, a fact which today, unfortunately, distorts current public opinion on the enormously valuable work done by religious communities at a time when the State had neither the capacity nor the resources to meet the educational needs of its people.

In the boards of management, staff groupings and parents' associations within the Church of Ireland community and Roman Catholic schools throughout the length and breadth of Ireland there is a corpus of knowledge and experience which is invaluable to the educational welfare of our children. However traumatised we may be by recent revelations, we must be proportionate in our assessment and ensure that the best interest of all our children is served.

Over the past decade, growing secularism, a changing socio-economic demographic and far greater urbanisation, together with a reawakening of interest in Irish culture and the Irish language, have brought the rapid emergence of two new strong and effective players in primary education provision. The growth in the number and spread of Educate Together schools and gaelscoileanna has been significant. Educate Together and An Foras Patrúntachta have demonstrated an impressive commitment and ability to manage schools and respond to an ever-growing public demand. Although the cynics in Irish society may raise questions about the extent to which these schools have achieved high levels of social integration, that contention would be hotly contested by the patrons of these schools.

It is important to limit the number of patron bodies approved as providers at both primary and secondary level while at the same time recognising the need to provide as much parental choice as is practicable and equitable in the best interests of all of our children. To that end, the work being done by Educate Together and An Foras Patrúntachta should continue to be supported and promoted. We also must recognise the strong commitment of the Church of Ireland community in maintaining its small network of excellent schools across the country.

Notwithstanding everything that has happened, we need to recognise that a substantial number of Irish parents continue to seek a Catholic education for their children and while acknowledging that the Roman Catholic Church may no longer have the capacity to deliver this service in as many locations as previously — this challenge will grow if vocations continue to decline — we must have regard to the manner in which Catholic provision has developed in other countries such as the United States and Britain. Put simply, we must ensure that in any new dispensation we create, Catholic education does not become the exclusive preserve of a few.

I am convinced that integration and equality must be the cornerstones of any new system of education provision. Schools for the most part operate at the heart of local communities. It is vital we have full consultation at local level between all the partners in education.

I salute the VEC sector, which since the 1930s has shown itself to be a system that is flexible, innovative, caring and inclusive. At a time when we talk much about the need for public service reform, it is appropriate to say that the VEC sector is an example of public service success. It will show through the community national school programme that it has the capacity to successfully expand its operations into the primary sector to the advantage of its student cohort.

Having had 25 years experience in the area of education at post-primary and primary level, I can attest to the fact that the VEC model is admirably open and accountable and has the benefit of also being a democratic forum. I acknowledge the need to rationalise the sector, most notably in the reduction of the overall numbers of VECs, but I suggest to the House it can become a major player in primary school provision. It would be my personal wish to see VECs developed into local education authorities that could administer and co-ordinate all State education provision, including preschool education, while simultaneously recognising and supporting the existence and ethos of the current primary providers.

I call on Deputy Mattie McGrath.

I am sorry to interrupt but I have a point of order. My understanding was that this would be the first instalment of a debate over a period of weeks. Is the Tánaiste going to conclude the debate this afternoon?

That is the order of the day.

There will be debates on other topics. Today's debate concerns primary education so there will be discussion on secondary education, among other topics.

Considerable numbers of Deputies are unable to speak on this.

The Deputy can raise the matter another time.

I wish to share time with Deputy Paul Connaughton.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am pleased to be able to make a brief contribution to today's debate. As a parent, like other speakers, I know that what most parents and families want is a proper grounding and education for children who attend all kinds of national schools. The VECs have a proven track record over the past 80 years in meeting the responsibilities and needs of colleges. A model has been set out that can only enhance the national school sector.

There are a few bad apples in every bunch and some have brought the name and reputation of the Catholic faith into disrepute. I pay tribute to the vast majority of Catholic brothers and sisters who made a significant contribution to the education of our children over generations from the last century onwards. As others have said, when the State was unable to provide this education, such people were the champions of the poor and all disciplines in life. They provided significant service to the State which cannot be wiped away because of the actions of the few.

I have personal experience of the issue as a parent and as a member of a board of management of a national school and VEC community college. I know the roles of the volunteers, along with their teaching colleagues and other school staff, clergy and patrons. Much work is done on a voluntary basis. Their contribution cannot be overstated as it was fair and without bias. With the significant changes in recent decades, particularly the last decade, in health and safety, welfare and education Acts, there has been much pressure on those volunteers to maintain and run the schools, often with little training. They gave their time to the community.

It is harder to get volunteers now.

I appreciate that but I acknowledge that these people have given their time for this cause. Admissions were allowed from all walks of life, and the policies were inclusive, clear and unambiguous. It allowed access from all the local communities, without being selective. That model should be drawn upon and introduced to new areas.

I pay tribute to what the VECs have done over the years at secondary level and in adult and continuing education, which was a poor relation. The VEC took up the reins in that area when it was not fashionable but the need was greatest. There are many programmes and nothing has been more satisfying to me as being involved in adult education and seeing opportunities for people to continue their education and lifelong learning. I salute the VECs across the board in that respect.

Deputy Paul Connaughton may speak until 3.20 p.m., give or take a few seconds. The Tánaiste has indicated some flexibility.

I will be as brief as possible and I do not want to interfere with the Tánaiste's time. I am a Member of this House a good while and possibly longer than most people. This has been one of the most encouraging debates I have heard.

The Deputy still has his hair.

The Deputy has not had a good look at the back. This has been one of the most uplifting debates I have heard in this House for a long time, and it has taken in the whole educational spectrum. Some of the famous opinion formers who take centre stage in our national media may be disappointed after today's debate. Their views have not been echoed to any great degree because we all come from very diverse backgrounds.

I come from a very traditional background. I am happy to say that the people I represent have no trouble seeing how important it is that everybody's views are looked after. I have only a couple of minutes at my disposal for something I would like to spend an hour on.

I have had children and grandchildren going through the educational system. The central issue is that they be educated in a natural and trustworthy environment. Deputy Quinn mentioned the local aspect, which is very important. Ultimately, the issue must be parent-based. Deputy Brian Hayes goes to much trouble in this respect. There should be a some kind of audit or survey of the parents in Ireland before any change is made and I am sure the Tánaiste will take this on board to some degree when the stakeholders are brought together. Some people may be surprised at the information coming from such a survey, although I would not. It would be a mirror image of the debate I have heard today involving people from all parties and none.

Some people think the correct action is to immediately eliminate the Catholic Church from the system but nothing could be further from the truth. There is room for new people, along with their views and aspirations, etc. We must embrace this and there is no great trouble in doing so. The VECs have proved such an approach over the years at second level. I am amazed at what the VECs have done, with it going unheralded much of the time. They deal with many people who would have a very poor chance in life had they not got a start in education.

Ultimately, I have no idea how the process will pan out. When Archbishop Diarmuid Martin indicated the church was prepared to hand over schools, I know exactly what he was talking about; it must be done in certain areas. Nobody is talking about getting rid of what has been an outstanding input to this day, taking in the years since the Famine, the hungry 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. To take the Catholic Church from the boards of management would necessitate much time and billions of euro to replace it.

This debate is very important. I hope we will have a system in which parents will be satisfied that, when their children are not in the living room, they will be in a place as near to it as possible, namely, school, that they are being taught by people who parents can trust and that the values being taught are sufficiently sound to allow their children to develop into people who can make their own way in life irrespective of their parents' income levels. The important element of the story is that we should give everyone as great a chance as we can, which is not too far from the Tánaiste's motto.

We look forward with great interest to seeing how this matter develops. I suppose that, when parents get a real say in what they want their children to do, there will be some changes in many places, but people in most of the country will not want significant changes as long as the standard of education is at the expected level. It is all about standards and input from the stakeholders.

I thank all of my colleagues for taking the time to participate in this debate. We will disappoint some Members because the House rightly comprises a range of diversity. I was anxious to bring the matter to the House because not everyone participates in the committees.

The discussion that will take place will present further opportunities.

I wholeheartedly agree with Deputy Quinn to the effect that we must not take our eye off the day job. Everyone in the House agrees that the quality of education, a focus on children and a role for parental choice constitute the main focus of what we want to ensure. For many, the struggle to find a child a place conjures up a great deal.

It is important that I take this opportunity to make some remarks. The voluntary nature of many people's involvement in education is often forgotten. Without this voluntary element, the system would not work as well as it does. It also means that local schools have a community feel.

I raised this debate on the basis that some colleagues might believe I do not have an open mind, given where I come from. However, I do. I am a parent and am very much of the opinion that all children should have the capacity to attend local schools within their communities if possible. As the mother of a child with a disability, he does not need to come to Dublin to school now that we have moved so much. This means he has developed well and, since there is no difference, the children in his school do not pass any remarks about him. It is important that we not differentiate between children on the basis of where they come from. This will help us to create good citizens.

In the context of providing parental choice and ensuring quality of education, the needs of rapidly growing areas must be met and children must have places provided for them. Deputies Ruairí Quinn and Brian Hayes come from two different perspectives in a large city. A third of the former's population are not of the Catholic faith and, when I travelled with Deputy Brian Hayes recently, we saw the high levels of deprivation and many other needs that must be addressed.

We have witnessed a number of aspects in the development of education. The role of the religious has been and will continue to be important. The diversification within the religious is equally important.

I had an opportunity to attend the opening of an Educate Together school. The children were fabulous and wonderful, the school was beautiful and there was a great sense of community and a large degree of parental involvement.

Cuidíonn na gaelscoileanna go mór le saol an aosa óig. Tá sé an-tábhachtach go bhfuil deis ag daoine múineadh trí mheán na Gaeilge. Is mór an trua é go bhfuil difríocht chomh mhór idir na gaelscoileanna agus na scoileanna Gaeltachta. Ní cheapann muintir na Gaeltachta go bhfuil an difríocht sin féaráilte. Ag an am céanna, cuidíonn na scoileanna éagsúla go mór leis an chultúr agus leis an teanga. Tá sé sin soiléir sa Teach seo agus in Éirinn i gcoitinne. Nuair nach bhfuil gaelcholáistí ar fáil, cruthaíonn sé deacrachtaí do pháistí atá ag freastal ar na gaelscoileanna agus gur mhaith leo leanúint ar aghaidh lena gcuid oideachais trí Ghaeilge sa mheánscoil. Tá go leor do mo chomhghleacaithe ag cur brú orm meánscoileanna a sholáthar ina ceantair fhéin.

The answer is in the Tánaiste's Department.

Ag an am céanna, tá mé ag déanamh gach iarracht a chinntiú go bhfuil siad ann. Labhair an Teachta Ó Snodaigh mar gheall ar Ghaelscoil Ráth Tó. Sa chás sin, níl ach ochtar ag iarraidh an scoil a chur ar fáil. Nil sé sin ciallmhar. Aontaím go gcaithfimid breathnú ar an ábhar arís nuair atá go leor páistí ann, ionas go mbeidh deis ann gaelscoil a chur i crích i Ráth Tó.

É sin ráite, were I to pick the similarities between Deputies, it would be our almost unanimous acceptance of the role of the VECs. We have all worked with VECs and seen where, through their flexibility, they have met the needs of communities and parents. Elected representatives sit on VECs, their meetings are open to the public and they are accountable. They can grow and develop. For example, parents were not elected during my time, but they can bring much to a VEC, as can the voice of students. This would be difficult in respect of small children, but not so where secondary level children are concerned. In second level, tá guth an aosa óig thábhachtach.

I agree with Deputy Joanna Tuffy regarding the new pilot. Unfortunately, the public was not given an opportunity to be educated on what the pilot was about. We were not there to differentiate. I note the concerns of Deputies Tuffy and Quinn about the differentiation among the children and the possibility that someone might feel left out. I have not had an opportunity to visit one of these schools yet, but I hope to do so. I have been given initial information on how the system is working and its practicalities. We should learn from the process and ensure that our final decisions, as supported by legislation, will be the right ones.

When providing diversity and creating opportunities and places in areas experiencing significant stresses, particularly large urban areas, we must not forget the small rural school or that it is just as important as the necessity to provide places for children in large urban areas.

Much of what has been stated in the House has been informed, informative, balanced and sincere. The real message I have garnered from the debate is that the patrons provide education in the best interests of children. As the Minister for Education and Skills, my role is to ensure this situation continues and I look forward to determining how to advance the matter. I listened to the Deputies' opinions on how that should happen, but there is a widespread acceptance that the Lower and Upper Houses hold the role of the education of young people in the creation of citizens dearly. I hope that we will have further opportunities to discuss what the future should be. I will not approach it with a definitive decision, as it is an opportunity for Deputies to express their views. As former Ministers, some Deputies would know that lobbyists and representatives and not Members of the House get the first opportunity to say something. For this reason, I would like to start in the Chamber as opposed to the other way around.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has been called much, but never a lobbyist.

I look forward to hearing from him. I thank Members for their contributions.

On a point of order, I hesitated to interrupt this magnificent debate. I have sat in the Chamber and listened to the entire debate since 1 p.m. I welcome the Tánaiste's opinion on having an open debate, but I wish to point something out to the Members still present.

That is not a point of order.

It is. I am referring to how 16 Deputies were called to contribute to the debate. There were seven from Fianna Fáil, two Green Party Members, one Sinn Féin Member, four from Fine Gael and two from Labour. There has not been any facility for myself or Deputies Finian McGrath or Maureen O'Sullivan to speak on this issue. I am no longer willing to accept that position. I ask Members of all parties to enable the three non-aligned Members, who are not subject to party Whips, to contribute to debates such as this one.

I hear what the Deputy has said and I know it was said sincerely. I will ensure that the Ceann Comhairle's office and the Whips are made aware of it.

If I had known, I would have asked some of my colleagues to share time. At the next opportunity, Deputy Behan should come to us privately and we will facilitate that.

We cannot have a debate on the matter.

Deputy Behan should rehabilitate himself.