I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this long-awaited Bill. However, I must say that it is somewhat limited. I believe we are debating it without having had any national consultation on the issue. I accept there has been a good degree of debate on the diversification of patronage. However, the overall issue of patronage and whether we are happy with the system in general has not been subjected to the same level of scrutiny. This scrutiny is crucial as we must examine how our patronage system is working and how it interacts with the Department of Education and Skills. I feel there is a real lack of understanding among the general public, which only comes to someone's attention when something goes wrong in a school. It is only then that people discover the Department does not have the say which the public thinks it has in the running of individual schools.
I want to make clear that while I welcome greater diversification I must question why the only diversification being considered in the Bill is the VEC model. There are pros and cons to the VEC model when it comes to primary schools. There have been two pilot schemes in Dublin which have been successful. I welcome those and I believe they were a good idea.
On the positive side, the VEC has the advantage of having a clear structure. It has strong administrative, legal and financial back-up which is important and as a patron, a VEC can offer a great deal of support to schools. Effectively, there is that ready-made structure. Importantly, it is possible for public representatives, parents and others to use those structures to follow up on problems where the local management system has failed. A CEO of a VEC can step in, at second level in any event, where the management system is not working. He or she has such power or authority.
On the negative side and, as a member of a political party I still must say this, I would have real concerns about the politicisation of some VECs. It is of genuine concern to parents and to many teachers. In this regard, the VEC will be the patron. It will not be running the school in the way it does at second level. The point has been made by Deputy Conlon, and it is in the legislation, that it will not be a sub-committee of the VEC conducting the interviews for teaching positions, etc. However, I would still have a concern about the politicisation of some VECs and that must be dealt with in order for this to work. Having spoken to teachers, in particular, and to parents, there is a fear of going into the interview process without that concern being addressed.
The Government refused some time ago to have a national debate on patronage, as Fine Gael, other parties, teacher union bodies, etc., have called for. Surely a system that has evolved since 1831 could need reform and need debate. We must look at that.
We have an unusual system in that the State pays the bills by and large. It pays for the teachers, it sets the curriculum and it carries out inspections and evaluations, yet it is effectively powerless when something is amiss in a school, with all the responsibility resting on the board of management. In my eight years in this House I, like many colleagues, have met with parents and teachers on individual issues who have effectively met a brick wall when problems occurred and who find it extremely difficult to get adequate responses from some individual boards of management. These might be isolated cases but the fact that I have had a significant number of them makes me question the whole system.
Technically, parents and teachers have representatives on boards of management but it seems that these people, once they go on to the boards of management, buy into the board of management process. This is understandable as they feel they are part of a team but they do not necessarily remember that they are were the representative of the parents, the teachers or whoever beforehand. Being on a board of management is cumbersome and legalistic. It is now an enormous responsibility and can be time consuming and it is difficult to get people to take on this role. I spoke to one person who took on the role of chair of a board of management two or three years ago who was the twentieth person who had been asked. There is a degree of personal legal responsibility that comes into it as well.
The structure works fine until there is a problem. When there is a problem it is almost impossible for me, as a public representative, to explain to a parent that the Department of Education and Skills and the Minister are not responsible here. Parents do not fully realise that until something goes wrong and that is something that needs to be addressed. Deputy Moynihan spoke about this as well. I very much take his point about whether, if we want local autonomy and power, we want to centralise by having the Department of Education and Skills in charge as such but we need to have a debate about this, particularly if we will find it ever more difficult to get people to go on to the boards of management.
However, this is one of the benefits of the VEC structure, in that the CEO is somebody who could then step in. It is not always practical in the current system where almost 3,000 of our schools are under Catholic patronage to expect the parish priest or, in the case Church of Ireland schools, the local minister, who will probably know both sides to a dispute from being active persons in the community, to always be the ideal person to intervene. If both parties are regular church attenders or if they both are persons one meets on the street, how does one adjudicate in that situation, whereas somebody like the CEO of a VEC may be in a better position to intervene.
In her summation, I would like the Tánaiste to explain exactly how areas for the new pilot scheme were chosen. Birr, where I live, is one of the chosen nine or ten places. I learnt about it on the "News At One". I spoke to teachers who learnt about it when I told them. What sort of consultation was conducted? It is fine if the church has decided that it will put forward these pilot areas, but who decided that these pilot areas were to be under the VEC structure or how did that come about? Surely, the community should be deciding whether it wants the VEC, Educate Together, An Foras Pátrúnachta or whoever. How will individual schools among those be chosen?
It is interesting in the context of the model for amalgamations announced yesterday by the Minister. I have no hang-up about the amalgamation of VECs. There is common sense in doing so, particularly from an administrative point of view. It may reduce the politicisation of it as well. However, for example, the parish of Birr that has been chosen under this model goes into north Tipperary. At least two of the schools in that parish are in north Tipperary. They are not in the new VEC model, which encompasses counties Laois, Offaly and Westmeath. How will that work under this proposed new system? There are many matters that must be teased out before this legislation can be finally passed. Who decided this and how will future local consultation on this issue take place? Who will have the responsibility of driving? Will it be the Department, the church or the VECs? If Educate Together or somebody else wants to come in, does a facility exist for that body to enter the process at this point?
I accept that the churches no longer have the manpower — it is very much manpower — to be the patrons of many of our schools but I do not agree with the polls that have been done in this area. When people are asked the general question do they think the church should be involved, it is quick and easy to give a "No" answer, but when one is asked where one wants one's own children to go, maybe the answer would be somewhat different. There needs to be real and substantial local consultation on this and parents need to understand how the system works and that the buck does not always stop at the Department of Education and Skills.
What training, skills and expertise will be made available to the VECs to deal with primary education? My experience of VECs has been that the CEO is usually somebody with a secondary school background, usually a former principal of a school or whatever. They are alien to the operation of the primary school system and to the different curriculum and demands of a primary school. That needs to be examined as well.
I share the views of colleagues on the unqualified personnel issue. This is a bizarre decision. I have watched at first hand at home and with friends the considerable amount of work that goes into the starting of a primary school career, particularly the teaching practice end of it, such as projects, folders, lesson plans, computer programmes and wall charts, and the examinations and the inspections that are carried out. There should be more of it later in careers. To some extent it all is very much at entry level. However, after all of that training there are so many unemployed primary school teachers and now the House is going to legislate — I will not be part of it — for someone unqualified to take up a position, albeit a temporary position, in schools. It is ill-thought out. If there are areas where they cannot get qualified teachers — from what Deputy O'Rourke stated, that is what the Tánaiste claimed at the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party meeting last night — and if the Tánaiste publishes a list of them tomorrow morning I guarantee there will be queues of teachers outside those schools by Friday morning looking to take up those positions. There are enough qualified teachers willing to travel to where the employment is on offer. If they do not travel to some rural place where it is difficult, the reality is they will be travelling to some other country to try to practice their trade.
I seek clarification, more than anything, on the speech and language issue being transferred totally to the HSE. The way it is being done, with the HSE and the Department of Education and Skills, is something of a fiasco. I had occasion twice last year in two schools in my constituency to raise the issue of two speech and language teachers who were both out on maternity leave. One of the schools, in County Offaly, was catering for children from counties Laois and Offaly. There were nine children in the speech and language class, each of whom was being taxied individually to this school for normal schooling and speech and language therapy. That teacher was not replaced while on maternity leave of almost nine months and the children missed almost an entire school year of speech and language therapy, despite the fact that one only gets the opportunity of two years of such therapy.
As the HSE would not fund a replacement speech and language teacher for the teacher on maternity leave, the school was powerless, but the Department of Education and Science still paid for the cost of transporting those children to and from that school by taxi. Those children continued to attend that school and they have received the regular education they would have received at the school in their own parish. It was impossible to address the lack of that required service because of the moratorium on staff recruitment and so on. How will the provision of such speech and language therapy work under this system? If all responsibilities for the funding of it lies with the HSE, who is responsible for the cost of providing taxis to transport children to the school where such therapy is provided and who will decide where it will be delivered? There are a few issues in that respect that need to be teased out.
If it were my choice, I would probably have opted for the other model where the Department would have had full responsibility to deliver such speech and language therapy within schools. That model might have been more effective. The involvement of two organisations, namely the HSE and the Department, poses a difficulty. Children who need such speech and language therapy should receive it within school and the fact that responsibility for the delivery of this service rests entirely with the HSE could cause complications for some children.