Education (Amendment) Bill 2010: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I had forgotten that there was a lunch break on Wednesday and I was in full flight before the sos. I am sorry that the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, is not present. However, Deputy Haughey, an equally important Minister of State, is present so I can address my remarks to him.

In my speech, I paid tribute to the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, and repeated my contention, without wishing to be deemed sexist, that women make the best Ministers for Education. I am summarising what I said, as any good teacher would on coming back to class. There have been excellent women Ministers for Education from all the mainstream parties. I will not go into this again.

We spoke about the amalgamation of the VECs, which is a very good idea. I am very disappointed a cutback of only €3 million is all that will be realised. I wish the Minister luck with this. Everybody seems delighted — until his or her own VEC is swallowed up. At that point, they will have great stories to tell.

Section 12, which provides for the amendment of section 30 of the Teaching Council Act 2001 to allow for the employment in certain exceptional and limited circumstances of persons who are not registered teachers under the Act, is the reason I am speaking on the Bill. I spoke on this at our parliamentary party meeting last night. It is the daftest and least thought out measure I have ever seen in a Bill. We spend great amounts of money training teachers, including primary and secondary teachers. Although people pay for their education in many cases, the State contributes a huge amount. If ever there were unemployed teachers, there are now. I am sure that over the summer months many Deputies met very highly qualified young primary and secondary teachers, men and women, who teach a great range of subjects. Why is the Government making it legal to take on people who are not registered as teachers under the legislation? I do not understand this and cannot fathom why any Department in charge of teachers and which believes in teaching as a profession, as many in this House do, would want to have and legalise the position of teachers who are not registered.

I was a secondary school teacher and my next point does not concern my own career. Years ago there were teachers called JAMs, which stood for junior assistant——

Mistresses and masters.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. The JAMs entered the system in the time of the late John Wilson, who was then a Deputy. During that time, there was a great shortage of teachers. Over the years, training courses were put in place for those teachers so they could become qualified, as was correct. In this day and age, the teacher training colleges are bursting with people. Hibernia College is bursting with people. HDip courses are bursting with those who are studying to become second level teachers.

I take very grave objection to section 12 on behalf of any properly registered and professionally trained teacher, be he a primary teacher or HDip teacher at second level. It is not correct that we would give permission to a Department to do so. Section 30 of the Teaching Council Act 2001 provides that a person who is employed as a teacher but is not a registered teacher shall not be paid out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas. What has happened since 2001? I presume all the teachers employed since 2001 did not work for nothing. Who has been paying them and from what fund have they been paid? This question needs to be addressed. It is nine years since that legislation was passed, at which time it was illegal to do this. I appeal to the Minister to allow that part of the Bill to stand.

I believe the Department, Minister and Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, have made a serious mistake in putting this forward. On behalf of those who have toiled to qualify as a teacher, I believe it is wrong. It is facetious and insulting to any fully trained-up member of the teaching profession. I am appalled that any Government Minister or Department would seek to enshrine this in legislation. The Minister told us last night at the parliamentary party meeting that this will apply in only exceptional circumstances. However, exceptions become the norm. I want to know what person or deed propelled this measure into this Bill. All that was required was the removal of the provision in regard to teachers not being paid out of the public purse. It was not necessary to insert another section which is heaping wrong upon wrong.

We live in a very technocratic age, an age when everybody — at least everybody I know — has a mobile telephone. Also there is ready access to computers even if one does not own one. Why then do we not have in place a database of available teachers for specific hours and with particular subject qualifications who can be contacted by text message or e-mail by the principal of a school seeking a teacher? There are plenty of qualified teachers. It is ridiculous to suggest we could not put in place a database in which the proficiencies and excellence of teachers who remain idle can be noted. There are many idle primary and second level teachers, in particular in the subject speciality area. It is heartbreaking for them that we are legislating to allow a person who is not qualified to be employed while they remain unemployed.

I do not accept the argument of a teacher being caught up in an accident and not being available to teach. It should be possible for principals to access by telephone, e-mail or text message a teacher within a 20 mile radius of the school concerned. Even if a substitute is required for only a few hours it is far better that a child is in a class which is being taught by a qualified teacher rather than that he or she is in a classroom being taught by a person who may be well meaning — nobody is taking that from them — but is not trained. People treat the profession of teaching very lightly. It is an intricate, hands-on, one-to-one job which calls upon the skills and resources of the person in charge of the students.

I ask the Minister of State and his officials to bring back to Marlborough Street my distaste of this part of the Bill and my abhorrence at what is being done, which is wrong and incorrect. It shows an ignorance of the professionalism of teachers. I believe this matter should be rectified on Committee Stage.

I would like a response in regard to what has happened since 2001. I doubt if all of those who were not qualified were not paid. I have grave reservations about this provision. Another concern which I expressed this morning while complimenting the Minister is the lack of reference to Educate Together schools. This Bill is all about the new vocational community primary school set up. I would have very grave suspicions of the Church so readily and quickly embracing this with open arms while Educate Together is in situ. There was not a word of praise or acclaim in the Minister’s speech of what the 57 primary schools operating well around the country have done. As what would happen in the Soviet Bloc, they were air-brushed out of existence.

Tá áthas orm a bheith páirteach sa díospóireacht seo. Tacaím leis an méid atá ráite ag an Teachta O'Rourke faoi mhúinteoirí ar fud na tíre atá dífhostaithe ag an am seo.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Education (Amendment) Bill 2010. While I welcome the main provision of the Bill I see no reason for inclusion of other aspects of it. It is possible it is hoped they would go unnoticed or be considered unimportant. I do not understand the reason for the provision in regard to untrained and unregistered teachers. I will come back to this point later.

The main provision of the Bill in terms of its dealing with new patronage of the VECs is to be welcomed. There are many multi-denominational schools in this country which are functioning well with no difficulties in regard to the teaching of religion. There may be minority groups that believe they will be omitted or suppressed for their religious beliefs. I can understand from where they are coming in this regard. This issue first developed in our schools in 1831 at which time the then commission allocated the functions and duties of schools. Some 90% of schools in this country are Roman Catholic and 5.7% of schools are under the patronage of the Church of Ireland. I recognise the statement a few years ago by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. He was the first senior person from the Roman Catholic hierarchy to acknowledge that there would be a compelling reason for the Catholic Church to divest the patronage of some schools throughout the country. He opened up that debate.

It is a pity the olive branch offered on that occasion was not taken up. There was and remains a need for broad consultation between all the partners and interest groups in education. This can still happen. During a debate earlier this year in this House there was a declared resistance by the Minister to the establishment of a forum at which all those involved could discuss the best way forward in education. I hope that the Minister and Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, in consultation with the officials of their Department, open up the window of opportunity that now presents.

Last week, an important statement on education was issued by Mr. Martin Murphy, managing director of Hewlett Packard, on behalf of many of the US multinational companies which operate here. Like me, Mr. Murphy understands that it is vital that those who come through the education system — from primary to second or third level — should emerge as fully-rounded individuals. Mr. Murphy said:

I have long argued about the urgent need for reform in Irish education — as a route to fulfilling Ireland's potential . . . However, education, if it is prioritised, can provide us with the single most important route to job creation — white collar, blue collar, any collar — full stop.

This statement is extremely important and should not be allowed to go unnoticed. The best way to obtain proper reform in education, and not merely that of the piecemeal variety that has been on offer to date, would be through the establishment of an forum at which the various partners in education could discuss the type of reforms that are necessary.

I have the utmost confidence in the vocational education committees as they are currently constituted. I am sure I will have the same confidence in them when they are reconstituted in the way in which the Tánaiste envisages. However, I am of the view that the system of using single entities to cover large geographical areas will be somewhat cumbersome. It is unfortunate that quite an amount of the detail relating to this matter is absent from the Bill. I hope that the Tánaiste will outline the detail to which I refer. All we are in a position to do today is suggest areas and matters which require to be addressed.

I wholeheartedly support the comments of Deputy O'Rourke and others in respect of unemployed teachers. No Minister can justify the argument to the effect that there are certain peculiar and individual circumstances which apply in some parts of the country and which make it necessary for school principals and boards of management to call on the services of untrained individuals. There is no logic behind the provision being proposed in this regard. The INTO made a very reasonable statement to the effect that it will not, beyond 2013, co-operate with schools in which untrained teachers have been employed. Up to five years ago there may have been a justification for employment such teachers, particularly because there was a shortage of trained professionals and because the output of the teacher-training colleges was not sufficient to meet the demand that existed. This matter was dealt with in a particular way at that time and the individuals to whom I refer received a particular form of ongoing training in order to allow them to take a final examination and thereby qualify. Initially, these people were employed on a part-time basis. There is no doubt that they made fantastic teachers once they were fully trained and there can be no questions posed with regard to their subsequent work as full-time professionals.

It is terrible that the Teaching Council's registration process is being undermined by the relevant provision in the Bill. I ask that the Tánaiste explain how she can make provision for the employment of untrained teachers when the process of registration is ongoing. It is not possible to reconcile the two approaches and I want the Tánaiste to outline her thinking in this regard.

Many ethnic and religious groups have been incorporated into our primary school communities in recent years. County Dublin Vocational Educational Committee ran a pilot scheme in this regard and similar projects were also run in many of the centres of urban growth in Dublin, in which many of the new entrants to the country live. There is a need to make provision for diversity in education. However, we must not place the focus in this area solely on religion. If we did so, it would be easy to become sidetracked and miss some of the other important aspects of this matter. For example, there are many children who do not have a basic knowledge of the English language. Such children also struggle with other subjects at primary level.

We must not focus too much on the religious aspect. The VECs, as the new patrons in the area of primary education, are well placed to provide assistance in respect of difficulties to which I refer. The Educate Together movement has already made great strides in this regard. Educate Together schools are fantastic, as are the gaelscoileanna. There is a gaelscoil in practically every urban centre and elsewhere throughout the country. These schools were established by those who have an interest in the Irish language and its promotion. The gaelscoileanna have done more to promote Irish than did all of the previous initiatives taken in respect of the language. At present, the vocational education system deals almost exclusively with second level and continuing education. However, it has the capacity to become involved in the area of primary level education.

I ask that the Tánaiste and her officials should examine the concerns expressed by the Atheist Ireland group. Every Member received an e-mail from the latter in respect of its concerns regarding issues of human rights and also the management of schools. The Tánaiste must acknowledge that there may be a difficulty in this regard and respond to the concerns expressed by the group to which I refer in a positive way. I will say no more on the matter other than to remark that the Tánaiste must, when replying to this debate or on Committee Stage, deal with the concerns of this group and those of others.

The Tánaiste's decision to transfer responsibility for speech and language services to the HSE is regrettable.

As public representatives, parents and school managers, we all know of the failure of the HSE to provide speech therapy services for children in need. Early intervention appears to be an absolute necessity for correcting, if possible, or improving the difficulties children endure in that instance. I hope the Minister will consider the matter again.

There is no doubt that speech therapy numbers have increased in the country, whether the specialists are employed in the Department of Education and Skills or the HSE, but the waiting list is unacceptable. I hope the Minister will see fit to reverse her decision as neither I nor many others have confidence in the HSE. It is so removed from reality in many different ways but giving it this responsibility is an admission of failure on the part of education and I am certain the executive will make a mess of it. It is too serious an area for the many young people who want rapid access to services at a time of greatest need.

I know services were provided at primary level but there was a failure when children moved to second level or into special schools. This came about primarily because of bad planning and poor connections between primary and secondary schools. The transition from primary to secondary level must be considered in that context.

I will finish on the disbanding of the committee for disadvantaged people. It had the opportunity to bring many people from disadvantaged backgrounds into third level education. I do not know if there is any real commitment within the Department of Education and Skills to the disadvantaged student issue. Two years ago the first real Scud missile was thrown into the area when the home school liaison officers were taken away from many of the DEIS schools in particular. There was reference in the Minister's speech earlier with regard to DEIS schools but does she not realise what has happened in so many areas where the disadvantaged were denied an opportunity with liaison officers and the fantastic work that can be done? The proof of this is that many schools classified within that category lost the label because of their competence and success; they were denied the ability to continue in the area.

At third level we can see that there has been practically no change in 20 years. We were told so many people from disadvantaged areas would be taken into third level but were it not for the Access programmes, many people who have gone through the system would not have qualifications. We are not serious about bringing in people from disadvantaged areas.

Disadvantage may take in the social and economic areas. I hope the Minister will address this issue, although it may not be a provision of this Bill. I cannot let the opportunity go when we are discussing disadvantaged students. Currently, many people are looking for access to education through the back to education scheme but the barriers have continued to rise. I know a person who has been told she is two days short of the requirements and is being denied access to the programme. The person was on jobseeker's allowance and must continue on it for another year while losing out on an offer to go into nursing. As she was two days short of requirements, she must wait another year and go through the process again. Why could the Department of Social Protection not see this as a realistic case where the person could be given an allowance to continue her education?

While this is happening, nobody will accept that we are serious about bringing people back to education. Various statements have been made in the media by Government spokespersons and time and again the importance of going back to education has been mentioned as a means of improving people's skills in order to get better jobs. The Government is denying such people so there is no consistency in the issue.

Deputy Margaret Conlon is sharing time with Deputy Michael Moynihan.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the Education (Amendment) Bill 2010, which comes on foot of announcements made relating to the amalgamation of VECs. It is something to be welcomed and it has been spoken about for many years. It is a unique issue in that there was broad agreement on all sides of the House and with the unions that something needed to happen in this regard and there was support for it.

I spoke to a parent this morning whose child attends a VEC school in my constituency. I mentioned that the proposed amalgamation had taken place and she said that it did not matter to her as her son was still going to a VEC school where the standard of education he got yesterday is no different from the standard today. There is an excellent standard of education in the school so parents are primarily concerned about that.

Part 2 of the Bill provides for the involvement of the VEC in the provision of primary education, which is to be welcomed. For over 80 years in this country the VECs have been shown to have a proven track record with experience in the management of second level schools. There are committees in the purest sense, with elected public representatives and representatives of all relevant stakeholders. From my experience I know the VECs operate an open, transparent and accountable model of corporate governance and are well placed to provide primary education either on their own initiative or on the direction of the Minister.

In my own county the VEC is under the stewardship of a visionary and dynamic CEO, Mr. Martin O'Brien, and it is leading the way in that we will have a multi-user complex on the site of the former Army barracks. It will be one of the first multi-user complexes in the country, with a primary gaelscoil, a second level gaelscoil and the Monaghan Institute of Further Education and Training. It is a unique project. When the Taoiseach made the announcement about the project last year he told the CEO that he had the responsibility to deliver it on time and under budget; the CEO has given a commitment that it is on time and on course.

That is if he is left there after yesterday.

Subject to the Minister's consent, the VEC may also become a patron or joint patron of an existing school. I have previously spoken about patronage in the House and it is important. I do not want to diminish this importance but parents, by and large, are not obsessed with patronage. They want a school where the children are safe and the standard of teaching and learning is high. It is important that the focus on the quality of teaching and learning is not lost. We all want our children to have a positive learning experience, one in which each of them reaches their potential and becomes the best they possibly can be. Parents want choice and our education system must offer it. We must ensure the system is responsive and dynamic if we are to meet the challenges of rapid regional and global change.

This new single patron and board of management model will have the capacity to cater for denominational, multidenominational and non-denominational education options. It will be inclusive while respecting the diversity of cultures in our society. Children in preschool or junior infants do not notice any differences between themselves. They see themselves as equals. These schools will provide religious education to the wishes of the parents. It is important the schools will respect and welcome all faiths and none. They will seek to provide religious education during allotted times for the main represented faiths in a school.

Section 5, boards of management, states they will not become sub-committees of the VEC but have the same status as boards of management in other recognised primary schools. I pay tribute and commend those who serve on school boards of management for their interest in our children's education. Having served on one in the past, I am familiar with the demands made on board members and how seriously they take their duties. They are volunteers and do not get enough recognition for the excellent work they do.

There has been much comment on the Bill's provisions on the employment of substitute teachers, particularly non-teachers as substitutes in certain circumstances. I appreciate the headache substitution can pose for principals and deputy principals. Urgent staffing needs occur and a substitute, who is not a registered teacher, may have to be employed. This should be the exception, not the norm, however. There are many unemployed graduates in the teaching profession. Where possible, they should be afforded an opportunity to gain valuable teaching experience which may help them secure full-time employment in the future. Every teacher had to start somewhere; experience is the first item on a teaching candidate's curriculum vitae that is checked before a job interview.

Non-registered teachers should be used only in exceptional circumstances. Otherwise, it can be disruptive to the teaching and learning process. I recall when I was a deputy principal using a database of substitute teachers but not being able to get a subject match. From my experience at second level, if, for example, a physics teacher is absent, a parent expects a physics substitute teacher to be in place. This is not always the case, however, as health and safety regulations require classes to be covered.

We must be careful with this development involving non-teachers. I accept such circumstances are extremely rare. Every effort must still be made to ensure a class is covered by a properly and appropriately registered teacher. A time limit for the employment of a non-teacher as a substitute in certain circumstances is also important as it is not a practice I would like to see continue indefinitely. I know from my teaching experience that parents and pupils would not be happy to have a teacher who may not be suitably qualified.

I know the Minister will take on board the concerns expressed by all Members on all sides of the House and give them due deliberation. I welcome the introduction of this legislation and look forward to its passage in the House.

I welcome the initiatives presented in the Education (Amendment) Bill 2010. While the existing patronage system served the education system and the country well for many generations, the debate on adapting it to the changing face of society has been going on for some time.

One must acknowledge the contributions made by patrons, chairpersons and members of boards of management to the education system. Many chairpersons of boards of management did not receive financial recognition for the contribution they made in education provision. As public representatives, Members know well of local issues that emerged with boards of management, such as conflicts over discipline, which caused heartache for board members. The State must acknowledge the voluntary commitment of those who served on boards of management to ensure the betterment of education in their communities.

As society has changed, however, issues surrounding the patronage system have emerged. Some argue it is time to fundamentally change the entire education system, taking primary school patronage out of the control of the various religious organisations and communities which have traditionally been in charge. I contend that system worked well for us in the past.

Statistics show that in the past 12 years, Educate Together has opened more primary schools than any other provider. This is largely due to the changing face of society, particularly in urban areas. Educate Together has done exceptionally well in bringing together all that is good from our educational tradition and new education methods.

The Bill sets out a framework that will allow VECs to provide for primary education, a new departure. Many VECs have already assisted primary school providers. The Cork County VEC has been charged with advising and helping the Department of Education and Skills and the boards of management of the two primary schools in Kanturk in regard to finding a new site, which I hope will be brought to a conclusion in the not too distant future.

VECs have huge strengths but, like every aspect of society, there are those who are critical of them. Since the VECs started out they have done very well. Following on from the late 1960s and the introduction of free education in community schools and colleges and comprehensive schools, they have done exceptionally well in what they have been charged to provide by the Department of Education and Skills, the State and the Minister of the day.

While the issues in the Bill have been debated at length, when I and Deputy Enright were members of the Joint Committee on Education and Science we heard numerous deputations before the committee reflecting different views, standpoints and ways forward. The Department and Minister have examined this issue very personally in introducing this Bill. People in advice centres or those looking for meetings will sing the praises of the current system while others will criticise it.

The Bill provides an initiative to ensure that we can provide primary education outside the control of the religious communities. Everyone has bought into this, including the Catholic hierarchy. The control the hierarchy sought in the provision of education was a difficulty that could not be overcome in the not too distant past. It challenged the State at all times. Many priests who are chairs of boards of management would be only too delighted to leave them because of the responsibility and difficult choices which have to be made. In many dioceses laypersons rather than bishops are chairpersons of boards of management.

The Bill amends some of the aspects of the Education Act 1998. It reflects the position of the Constitution which is that education is to be provided in schools which are recognised or established by the State. It is a constitutional requirement of the Government.

Government policy over the years has changed to providing different types of education. The term "pluralist" is probably too simple a way of explaining it. The reality is that society has changed enormously. The last major change, in terms of the provision of education in VECs, took place in the 1950s. By and large the community schools and comprehensive schools amalgamated — they were known as the "tech" — and formed one new school.

We are now moving into a new system of education which has not been a challenge for the State for up to 50 years. We are moving into a new society and a different regime. The Bill provides for patronage by the VECs and provides that each of the schools, even though they will have the patronage of the VEC in the city, county or the new regimes which were announced yesterday, will have their own independent boards of management. That is a reflection of what has been in place heretofore when a bishop appointed the patron and the boards of management were independent units.

The issue has been debated in the courts when disputes arose. Boards of management have the ultimate responsibility for schools but perhaps it should be the State. It will put huge pressure and responsibility on boards of management if the State and Government decide to submerge the responsibility into the Department of Education and Skills. There will be issues with that as well because such a decision would take away local involvement and power from the community in schools.

Since 1997, some 117 new schools have opened, 29 of which are Catholic and the majority of which are under the alternative system of patronage, Educate Together. It is important to draw a distinction between the arguments that should apply where prospective patrons wish to establish a new school and those that need to be put in place to manage the change in patronage or the reconfiguration of existing schools. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin indicated clearly that if there was no demand for a Catholic ethos or patronage in a school, the church was willing to consider releasing schools from its patronage, but that would only be done on the basis of discussions with parents, teachers and the general community. It is vitally important that any decisions which are taken involve the community which should have a say on what system of education is available.

I commend the Bill to the House. Many issues need to be thrashed out and Members have numerous suggestions. The Bill has to be welcomed. It is a new initiative for the education system for the future. Let us hope it will serve our country as well as the education system has done in the past. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on the Bill.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. It could be regarded as a contingency measure, as it is mainly forced into being as a response to a crisis in education that rocked the sector and has shaken the country as a whole to the core. Whether its provisions have long-term viability remains to be seen. It could be seen as merely adding another layer to an already over-large and formless education cake.

I would not like to see this debate turn into a religious witch-hunt, but rather to focus on it as an opportunity to highlight the community aspect of such legislation. While I am aware that it is essential to crawl before one walks, I see here an opportunity for community cohesion. This could be extended to the realisation of the eventual aim of preschool to leaving certificate students sharing a campus in each town in Ireland. For this to happen the VEC sector needs to be strong enough to bring in primary education. Such a campus would provide an environment where the school community could pursue academic and sporting activities in purpose-built accommodation, sharing valuable resources under the umbrella of the VEC.

In my county of Longford, Gaelscoil Longfoirt has proposed that the recently closed Sean Connolly Barracks would be well suited as school accommodation for the gaelscoil, which is currently overcrowded and has a long waiting list. The proposal further suggests that it would make a fine educational campus, housing more than one school. This is the vision that can reform the education landscape but without funding such aspirations will never become a reality, in particular under the current Government.

However, this Bill is the stepping stone to such an educational utopia. It provides for direct State involvement in the setting up of primary schools with the VECs becoming their patron. Let us make no mistake about the fact that this is the opening salvo in the separation of church and State in the educational sector. It could take us back to the position that existed in 1831 when the Whately commission was instrumental in giving Ireland one of the most progressive non-denominational school systems in Europe. In 1831, a board of education was set up in Ireland under the chairmanship of Archbishop Richard Whately to support and run a State primary school system. This was to prove a far more difficult task for him than chairing the Irish royal commission on poor relief. The goal was to provide a free non-denominational primary education system, in which children of all religions would be educated together in secular subjects, an aspiration championed today by the multi-denominational and project schools. This initiative was doomed to failure. It was deeply resented by all the churches at the time, but proved highly popular with the people. By 1849, approximately 500,000 children were attending the 4,321 national schools. However, the churches gained control and support for their own church-run schools. By the turn of the century, the education system in Ireland was denominational in practice. What we are now looking to is a revitalisation of Bishop Richard Whately's vision.

The VEC website provides details of secondary education, adult education and community education but seems shy when it comes to providing information of what is being heralded as a new era in primary education. It is time for the VEC to put out its stall and keep us informed of its plans. However, with an alarming lack of joined-up thinking, on the eve of the debate on the Bill the Government announced the closure of 17 of the 33 VECs leaving 16 multi-county VECs. This will result in a situation where for the first time in 80 years individual counties will no longer have their own VEC. However, this morning, the Minister stated the aim was to amend and extend the VECs. This seems very strange to me as it goes much further than the McCarthy proposal for a cut to 22 VECs. I would like the Minister to outline the impact this will have on proposals to bring primary patronage under the umbrella of the VEC. The question for many counties now will be what VECs will be closed. A withdrawal of the VEC structure will have a detrimental effect on many communities, especially those in rural Ireland. My county of Longford is one of the counties that is supposed to lose its VEC and this is a cause of anger in the community.

I heard Deputy Conlon praise the CEO of Monaghan VEC and I wish to compliment the new CEO of the VEC in Longford, Rosemary Killian-Johnston, on the fine work she does in co-operation with Councillor Sean Farrell, the chairperson of the VEC. I also pay tribute to Josephine O'Donnell who was CEO of Longford VEC for the previous ten or 12 years and I wish her well in her retirement.

I am puzzled by the Minister's contention that schools will benefit from the rationalisation of supplies and services. I am sure she must agree with me that given the track record of the Department of Education and Skills, this is a load of codswallop — to put it politely. These latest cutbacks are a severe blow to local democracy and another nail in the coffin of Irish education.

With regard to the provisions in the Bill to give unqualified persons the legal right to teach in schools in limited and exceptional circumstances I wish to quote an e-mail from a disgruntled constituent, which sums up the feelings of outrage at this proposal:

I am writing to you to express my deep concern at the Education Amendment Bill which was published recently. I am horrified to read of the intention to amend section 30 of the Teaching Council Act (2001) to enshrine in legislation the facility for people who are not teachers to be employed as teachers and paid as teachers in schools. Section 30 of the Teaching Council Act was what the Teaching Council was supposed to be about. It was to end the ongoing scandal where someone who had nothing more than a Leaving Cert could stand in front of a class and be paid by the taxpayer for "teaching". The excuse always given for this practice in the past was a shortage of suitably qualified teachers which necessitated the "emergency" employment of unqualified personnel. That excuse does not exist now with hundreds of fully qualified teachers seeking work. This was the ideal moment to commence Section 30, not to amend it.

This correspondence sums up the outrage and disbelief of those involved in the educational sector as they see thousands of fully qualified and registered teachers who are unemployed. We all have them in our parishes and communities. Unfortunately many of them have to take planes and boats to places such as Canada and Australia to seek alternative employment.

The fact that the Government has seen fit to publish this Bill against the backdrop of widespread teacher unemployment is nothing short of an insult. There is no other profession where this would be tolerated and anyone who supports this section of the Bill and continues to talk about developing a knowledge economy is either stupid or hypocritical. Again we see the lack of joined-up thinking and basic logic of the Government. Has it escaped the Minister's notice that we are in a time of high unemployment, with 452,000 on the live register? Now is the time to protect teacher employment, not to undermine it. I request her to reconsider this retrograde step. Surprisingly, I had support from my constituency colleague, Deputy Mary O'Rourke, on this issue. It is beyond belief that any circumstances could possibly arise whereby an unqualified person could or should be paid to replace a teacher, given the high level of unemployment in the sector. It is self-evident that non-teachers should not be employed when highly trained personnel are available. There is also the question of the protection of children, which must be to the forefront of all our minds. Such a move calls into question the Minister's own qualifications for her portfolio.

I fully support the 2007 announcement by the then Minister for Education and Science, the idealistic aspirations of which included devising a new State model of community national schools. However, the political landscape has changed in the interim and my fear now is that primary schools, which are a vital component of the education sector, will fall between two stools and funding will be further eroded.

At this point I will let in my colleague, Deputy Enright. I am sure she will have more to say on this subject.

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.

That is agreed.

I very much welcome this Bill. It is an important one for bringing about change in Ireland, particularly with the diversity of people here and the way our schools are developing. Having recently launched the Department of Education and Skills intercultural education strategy, I have noted the extraordinary change in Irish schools with our new migrants. The development of a community national school project is a good idea and I am in favour of it. I am also very much in favour of the educate together model and I would like that model to also be in place at secondary level. Not only are we delivering education at VEC level, second level and now moving into primary level but I hope that the Educate Together model will move from being in place at primary level to secondary level.

As Deputy Enright mentioned, the VECs have done the State great service around the country. I was chair of a board of management of a VEC in my constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny, Tullow Community School, and learning of the diversity and breadth of subjects, qualifications and the whole school ethos delivered in that school was a tremendous experience. Dealing with staffing and policy issues in that school gave me a great understanding of what it is like to be in the heart of managing a school.

To replicate the VEC model at primary level in face of a changing Ireland is an interesting development. The VEC concept is a good model. I know it will change due to a recent announcement, but as a wise person said to me in Kilkenny recently, "everything changes except a stagnant pool". We must not look on things as stagnant pools, rather we must reflect on where we are at in times of economic recession, growth, well-being in our country and examine our structures. Developing the community school concept is an interesting change. It is a model that will ensure that the schooling needs for the coming year will embrace the huge diversity and interculturalism we have, which is a great boon and there is a great sense of new energy coming into Ireland and into our schools. This concept has a diverse approach.

While we have had our troubles with scandals in the church in recent times, there have been very good national schools with boards of management, on which the church was involved but we are moving into a new phase now. This new phase is to be welcomed, particularly as we are becoming a more integrated society. Askea boys' school and girls' school in Carlow in my constituency have more than 35 different nationalities, which brings to those schools a broad range of cultural diversity and tremendous difference whether it be language, food, faith or curriculum development, which all contribute to that broader new school ethos.

The way we view the teaching of religion is one of the issues on which I want to focus in the short time I have to contribute. The teaching of religion will change in these schools, and I welcome that. These new community schools will welcome and respect all faiths and none and seek to provide for religious education during the allotted times for the main represented faiths within the school. They also cater for parents who do not wish their children to receive a religious education based on any one particular faith. That represents a move towards the new Ireland, taking account of the huge volume of inward migration we have experienced in recent years and the integration of which we have managed very well. One of the good aspects of the intercultural education strategy is that it pinpointed the inclusivity of our education and the support particularly for English as an additional language. Mindful of the myriad languages now spoken in our schools, one experiences a veritable microcosm of the world when one goes into some of our schools and sees the mix, diversity and that wonderful vibrancy of interculturalism, and I welcome that.

That inculturalism will mean we will have to change the way we do our business in our schools. The multi-belief programme is being taught in the new community national schools, particularly Scoil Cormac in Balbriggan and Ard RÍ community national school in Navan and in Naas, and they are pioneers in this development. They are pushing out the boat in terms of developing this new model. I love the title of the course for the development of this pilot belief programme in schools, which I am sure the Ceann Comhairle knows. It is called "Goodness Me, Goodness You" and represents the good in all of us across the board of all different faiths and of none. The person who thought of that working title deserves a pat on the back because it is good, punchy and different. It is designed to cater for children of all beliefs and of none, with content appropriate for both theist and non-theist perspectives in keeping with the commitment to provide belief specific teaching in accordance with the wishes of parents. The programme also provides for belief-specific modules to be delivered for children whose parents take that option. If I had to say what I really like about this Bill, it is the inclusivity and respect for diversity of cultures present within the single school setting rather than in more than one school. This approach is an important distinguishing feature of the community national schools, and I welcome that. We are changing and we have to change with the times, develop, make sure that our schools cater for the needs of their new pupil cohorts and leave nobody behind and be inclusive in that respect.

I welcome the provision to allow the VECs to operate primary schools with the board of management model of other primary schools rather than the governance model, and I believe that will be a good move. The board of management model has worked well. Having spent eight and a half years on the board management of a VEC in Carlow at post-primary level I am aware of the work boards of management do and the difficulties they face, whether it be a staff issue, a pupil issue, a governance issue, a problem with finance or a problem with the delivery of the curriculum. The broad base that is the VEC system in our country has served us well. This new model will be a great addition to our school provision network. The intercultural education strategy covering five-year planning in education, which I launched a few weeks ago in Croke Park — before the All-Ireland final, when Kilkenny got its comeuppance, but never mind we will be back again — caters for the linguistic and cultural needs of our pupils. This Bill is another part of that forward planning.

I pay tribute to VECs throughout the country which have done the State a great deal of service in terms of the provision of education. Turning their hand now to the community national school model will be a challenge, but it will mark this new development in a new way for a new cohort of pupils who are coming into the system and for parents who want a different system and a different methodology to be used in the way their children are taught, including or excluding religion and to have that freedom and respect for the diversity of cultures. To me, that is a sign that in Ireland we are moving on in terms of how we look at changing trends in education. It is good that we are doing this. Unless we cater for the differences, it could possibly cause us trouble in the future. We want to make sure that our education system with that broad depth of interculturalism can be applicable at second level through this new model. I pay tribute to the boards of management of all our national schools. The model they have delivered will change to a new type of patronage model under this legislation. This move is to be welcomed in a changing Ireland.

There has been considerable discussion of the reasons a new patronage model is required at this time. Historically, as we all know, the church authorities acted as patrons or sponsors of primary schools by initiating the process of establishing new schools when they were needed to serve particular geographical areas. Times are changing, however, and we need to adopt the new approach proposed in the Bill. I look forward to seeing how the work of the vocational education committees and the VEC system at second level will cope with and adapt to primary level. From frequent conversations with teachers, the initiative is receiving positive support.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Mary White, for sharing time with me.

I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak to this important Bill, which gives effect to the provision of primary education by the vocational education committees at the direction of the Minister for Education and Skills or on its own initiative. It also allows a VEC to act as the patron of a primary school.

It is interesting to note the following statistics. Almost 85% of primary schools are currently under the patronage of the Catholic Church, while almost 6% are under the patronage of Protestant religions and 2.3% are either interdenominational or non-denominational.

Some years ago, the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin, announced the intention to devise a new model of patronage, one that was intended to allow those of many different religions and none to attend a school where the patronage would be representative of the students attending the school. It is important to remember that the primary school system in Ireland is well established and has served the country well during the past 150 years or thereabouts. There is no doubt that were it not for the active participation of the main religions in the establishment and running of schools during the past 150 years, we would not have the educational system we have today.

I pay tribute to the many people who have served or serve on boards of management under the direction of the various school patrons and thank them for their time and expertise. It is often overlooked in the current climate that these are given in a voluntary capacity. Without these individuals, Irish education, especially primary education, would not be as strong as it is today.

We have heard a great deal recently about third level education. It is timely to remind ourselves that the foundation stone of education for all of us is that which we receive at primary level, hence the importance of ensuring that the primary school system is representative of Ireland in the 21st century. This Bill is a recognition of modern Ireland in which all religions and none are recognised and practised and all our citizens and their children are treated equally.

It is also worth remembering that funding for primary schools is State provided. Hence, we have the strange position in which the State provides the funding but responsibility for the management of a school lies with its patron and board of management. This model has worked well and all those involved deserve credit. Nevertheless, stresses and strains are beginning to emerge and the circumstances in which this country finds itself must be taken into account.

Last night, it was announced that the vocational education committees are to be reorganised and their number sharply reduced. In the present climate, reorganisation and re-evaluation of all State services must be undertaken. Giving the VECs an opportunity to become patrons of primary schools and become actively involved in primary education will be a severe challenge to the VEC sector. However, when one considers their success at second level one concludes that the outlook is good.

In my constituency of Sligo-Leitrim, the success of many of the schools under the control of the VEC is well recognised. I will briefly refer to one such school, Ballinode Community College in Sligo city, which has developed great expertise in the provision of PLC courses and has more than 600 students attending PLC courses. Students travel from all over Connacht, from north Donegal and as far as counties Mayo and Galway, to attend the school and avail of the variety of courses on offer at PLC level. These courses have a great reputation in preparing students for the next stage of their education.

I appeal to the Minister with responsibility for PLCs, who has been supportive of County Sligo VEC submissions in recent years, to look kindly on requests for further increases in funding for this ever-growing and important sector. Ballinode Community College, with minimal funding, has been transformed in recent years and the ever increasing student numbers and wide geographical area from which its students come is testament to the success the principal, Mr. Joe Carolan, his staff and County Sligo VEC have achieved on the path they are travelling. Taking this as an example of how the VECs can respond to new challenges, I have no doubt they will be able to fulfil their role as primary school patrons with equal if not greater success than envisaged in the Bill.

I will briefly allude to a number of issues arising from the Bill. I am sure most of them will be addressed in greater depth on Committee Stage. It will be a challenge to the VEC sector to mobilise the voluntary help which is an essential support to primary schools. One only has to think of the many voluntary fundraising events organised by parents and friends, whose support is vital to the everyday running of their local primary school and which, given the current financial climate, will become even more important in future. While I have no doubt the VEC sector will be up to this challenge, it is important from day one that it recognises the challenges that will have to be faced in this area.

A second issue that will arise is the teaching of religion and how the curriculum will be managed in this regard. Early liaison with parents who choose to send their children to the proposed new schools should help resolve potential difficulties in this regard. Parents have the ultimate right to choose what religious instruction is given to their children. I am sure the main faiths will become actively involved in this area, if required. We live in a multiethnic society. It is important, however, that schools established under the Bill do not fall into the trap of becoming ghettoised and thus stigmatised.

Other challenges also arise, including the employment of unregistered teachers. If unregistered teachers are to be employed, strict criteria must be in place to safeguard the quality of the teaching supply. This issue needs to be fully teased out on Committee Stage. I concur with Deputy Enright's comments in this regard.

Overall, this is a brave initiative by the Minister and I commend her on her courage in taking it. I welcome the Bill which will, in time, be recognised as an important milestone in Irish primary school education.

I wish to share time with Deputy Morgan.

I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on this important legislation, which has arisen in part as a result of circumstances in my constituency of Dublin West. Some years ago, the area experienced an extreme crisis in the formation of new schools as a result of an explosion in the number of children locally. This was partially due to the very high birth rate in the area. However, it also was because of a trend that the area of west Dublin shares with north Dublin and which probably also holds true around Drogheda, County Louth and in all the rapidly expanding areas of the country. Although new primary schools were being formed in multiples every year in all the developing areas by both Educate Together and local Catholic parishes, a significant number of children, mostly of international origin, were not qualifying for places in any of the schools despite all of the new school expansion. This was because there was such a population explosion of schoolchildren that this was not possible. Thereafter, two additional schools were formed, one in the Dublin 15 area and the other in north Dublin. The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Martin, took the patronage of the west Dublin school, called Scoil Choilm, on a two-year temporary basis, while Educate Together took the patronage of a school in the north County Dublin area, which meant that both principal patrons each took a school. In the case of Scoil Choilm, which now is a highly active and thriving school in Dublin 15, the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, indicated from the outset that it would be handed over to a VEC patron and after two years this decision was fulfilled. The aforementioned school has been under the patronage of the County Dublin VEC since then, albeit without any legal status for the VEC to act as patron. In so far as this Bill gives legal effect to what was promised and provides for the VEC to become a patron of Scoil Choilm in the full legal sense, this is to be welcomed.

Scoil Choilm now is a significant primary school with a permanent premises in Castleknock and has an overwhelmingly international school population. This leads to a point I wish to make because since the development of Scoil Choilm, a number of other VEC primary schools have been established in west Dublin that also cater to a significant international community. While all schools in west Dublin have large numbers of international students in their population, the VEC schools have a particularly high number of such students. Given that the students in such schools often come from more than 30 countries and therefore from a wide variety of backgrounds, it is important that, as the VEC is given responsibility by the Government for the patronage of such schools, one is clear about what one desires for these schools.

The first and most important point is not necessarily to do with religion but pertains to the quality and reputation of such VEC schools, as well as to their ambition for the children who attend them. Such schools under the patronage of the VEC must aspire to the very highest standards of education for the students in their care, regardless of whether they come from Ireland or an overseas background. This will be absolutely critical. The second principle is that in so far as is possible, these schools should be made sufficiently attractive for Irish families to be anxious to send their children to them. Such schools must be centres of outstanding achievements, learning and experience for all children who attend them, whatever their background. There is a great deal of phoney debate going on as though the only issue regarding these schools pertains to how religion is or is not taught or approached. That is to miss the point. The key element about any school is that all children who attend it should be invited into an attractive learning environment that enables them to make progress to the best of their ability and ambition, as well as that of their parents. They then should proceed successfully into the secondary school system and I note that many of the schools in west Dublin have a VEC secondary school attached. In turn, the children coming out of those secondary schools should then go on to do the same kinds of things as do children from primary and secondary schools with traditional patronage. I refer to the statistics that well over 50% of the students from Irish secondary schools go on to some kind of third level education. This is the ambition of most Irish parents and most international parents.

I have met the principals and many of the teachers of the VEC primary and new secondary schools in west Dublin and have had the opportunity to visit for various different events. It is clear that the quality of the teachers and leadership in those schools is absolutely excellent and outstanding. Moreover, the parents are highly engaged in supporting the schools their children attend. That is a most vital point when creating a successful school community. From the moment one enters the entrance hall of such a school, it has about it a ring of confidence and ambition for the future success of its children, whatever the capacity or wishes of the individual child or his or her parents may be.

As for the religious education and religious formation issue, Ireland has a model of denominational religious schools, which are highly valued by parents for obvious reasons. This is a constitutional right they have and will continue to enjoy and that the Labour Party supports and upholds. The model of Educate Together is multidenominational. All schools should respect all religions, as well as people who have an ethical foundation that is not necessarily expressed through a particular religion. Good models have been developed by Educate Together in particular to have a core curriculum that treats the basics of moral principles in respect of the approach to the world of the child and in terms of the school, home, village, town or city. Moreover, particularly when children in a school represent 30 or more different nationalities, children should have an opportunity to understand broadly, perhaps when they enter fifth or sixth class, what are the different great faiths of the world, what are their principal tenets and that there should be mutual respect and understanding.

It is relatively easy to make provision for a system of specific religious formation and different religious faiths have different traditions in this respect. For example, in the case of the Protestant churches, the Jewish faith and many of those who practice the Muslim faith, much religious formation takes place in the actual place of worship outside of the school. Members will be familiar with Church of Ireland Sunday schools, as well as various forms of education in synagogues for people of Jewish faith. In Ireland, it has been traditional to make faith preparation an essential and integral part of a Catholic school. In multidenominational schools, it obviously will be for the VEC, the school board and the parents to decide whether this should be done by making available the premises of the school. Agreement can be reached whereby the school premises are made available for parents who wish to have their children partake of Holy Communion and Confirmation. It could be arranged, for example, to have that faith formation and those particular ceremonies take place after hours. Such solutions are eminently possible and would reflect the broad level of diversity that exists in areas like my constituency. I hope the Bill will facilitate and recognise those types of solutions. Moreover, I hope the diverse ethnicities and faiths of parents and pupils will be represented on VEC boards of management. That will strengthen the multidenominational aspect of schools.

I thank Deputy Burton for sharing time. I very much welcome the Bill. It is long overdue, although it is not quite the Bill I would have introduced were I sitting on the other side of the House.

The separation of church and State must be completed. In the Twenty-six Counties the State pays for education through capitation grants, teachers' salaries and a range of other funding. However, the vast majority of primary and secondary schools are not under democratic control but instead are predominantly under the patronage of Catholic bishops and in the ownership of the Catholic Church. It is a legacy of the old era of ecclesiastical power and control. We must move toward a democratically controlled education system which is truly representative of the community, which respects the rights of people of all religions and none and is totally child centred.

In that regard, I welcome the initiative taken in this Bill with regard to VEC patronage of primary schools. This is a step in the right direction in terms of throwing off the shackles of our outdated church-dominated education system. To allow denominational schools the discretion to disqualify some children from admission on the basis of religious belief, or lack thereof, is not sustainable in a modern, diverse 21st century Ireland. It is a scandal that this discrimination has been allowed to continue for so long.

The current patronage model has its foundations in the establishment of the national school system in 1831. A lot has changed since then and we now live in an Ireland which is more diverse, more inclusive and more respecting of other cultures and religious identity. We need to move with the times. We cannot continue to base our education system, which is the bedrock of our society and moulds and shapes the lives of generations, on a system dating back to British rule. The VEC system is a democratic one. VECs across the state are comprised of elected representatives, parents and community representatives who are at the coal face of education and who have first-hand knowledge of their communities and how they work.

I am disappointed that on the eve of this debate, the Government made an announcement that it is to amalgamate 29 out of the 33 VECs in the State. This is a bad move. While the Bill increases the roles and responsibilities of VECs, the proposal to amalgamate does the opposite and diminishes the role of the VECs. We need only look at the Health Service Executive to see that centralising services does not work. Under the old health board system, with all its faults, there was at least an element of democratic accountability. There is no democratic accountability under the HSE. Parliamentary questions the Minister for Health and Children are simply referred to an official somewhere in the system who may or may not reply. If there is a reply it may well be in the form of a daft note which means nothing. I hope the same mistake will not be made with regard to the VECs. The Minister must publish a cost-benefit analysis of this proposal before proceeding with any changes. VECs are anchored in democracy and are accountable.

There has been much debate about the teaching of religion in schools. Although the new VEC model of primary school will allow for faith formation during the day, it intends to cater for those of all religions and none. Provision will be made during the school day, based on the level of demand, for the religious education of children in conformity with the wishes of parents. The school will also cater for parents who do not wish their children to receive education based on any one particular faith. This is very much welcome. In a perfect world there would be no religious instruction during school hours in the classrooms of a secular state. However, it must be recognised that this is a major step in the right direction to inclusiveness and tolerance, and I hope it will go some way towards the full secularisation of the education system.

I have concerns about some sections of this Bill, in particular the move to disband the educational disadvantage committee. What type of message does that send? At a time when unemployment is soaring and social welfare provision is being reduced it makes no sense to disband a committee whose sole focus is to act on the issue of disadvantage in education. The proposed saving arising from the disbandment of the committee is €300,000, a pittance in comparison with the billions being pumped into the banks. It is clear that the Government has its priorities all wrong. Educational disadvantage will not go away without a focused strategy but it seems to be last on the list of this Administration's concerns. The Government has already cut student grants, Youthreach allowances and Traveller training centres. Now it is proposing to disband the educational disadvantage committee. I hope the Minister will reconsider this proposal.

I also take issue with the provision in the Bill to allow unqualified persons to teach where a substitution requirement arises. At a time when fully qualified teachers are in the dole queue, it is totally unacceptable that persons who are not qualified for the job are being employed in schools. I propose to move an amendment in this regard, which will also be put forward by my colleague, Senator Doherty, in the Upper House. A person who is not a teacher and who is engaged by a school to cover the absence of a teacher should be recruited in a supervisory capacity only. Moreover, the appointment should be recorded as such so that the impact of the Minister's failure to make provision for qualified substitution can be monitored. The availability of accurate monitoring figures would reveal the extent of this practice.

Not only do children deserve to be taught by a qualified teacher but teachers who have trained and received their qualification deserve to work. I propose the establishment of supply panels of qualified teachers so that every teacher absence is covered by a fully qualified teacher. This makes far more sense than the current arrangement. I am acutely familiar with the practice of teacher panels because such a panel was in operation in Dundalk town for a considerable time before recently being discontinued because of funding issues. It was an excellent practice which gave principals some degree of certainty in regard to the inevitable absences that occur.

There is a need for us to move on as a society by providing more choice in our education system. We must throw out the archaic system of religious control over our education. There is also a need for fundamental reform of our outdated patronage system. I support the proposals in this Bill with regard to VEC patronage of primary schools. However, I will reserve judgment on the legislation in its entirety until the concerns I have raised are addressed.

I conclude by noting that it is unfortunate that there are Members of this House — qualified teachers — who are holding onto teaching posts and thus preventing unemployed teachers from taking up those positions. I fully understand why a first-time Member would wish to retain the option to return to a teaching job after the next election. However, once a Member has been re-elected, he or she should be prohibited from holding onto that post and therefore preventing teacher colleagues from securing their proper position in the education system. I may propose an amendment to the Bill in this regard.

I am struck by several themes that have featured in this debate including, in particular, the issue of religious education. On the matter of registered teachers, to which Deputy Morgan referred, the explanatory memorandum to the Bill notes that in a small number of schools there are reasons for the engagement of certain unregistered teachers. In the context, one can understand the Minister's motivation.

Like all Members of the Oireachtas, I have had communications from individual teachers and from representative bodies expressing outrage that this may be the thin end of a wedge. I do not believe this is the case but I agree with Deputy Morgan that the system must be tightened up. One way to tighten it up would be to revisit the issue of supply panels. Some months ago, the Joint Committee on Education and Skills, which I chair, looked at the issue of the north Clondalkin supply panel. Despite the best efforts of members of the joint committee and the visiting delegation to put cogent points to the Minister, no progress was made. Given our current financial constraints, it makes sense to have either one national or a small number of regional supply panels rather than several local panels. Panels should consist of qualified teachers who are currently available for work rather than retired individuals. Retired teachers may have considerable experience but in the current jobs market we want to ensure that people who have graduated can gain experience. While one cannot be ageist, one must strike a balance. By having a proper incentivised quota system on a national supply panel one can ensure a blend of recently qualified people with new ideas and experienced teachers. There may be individuals who could go on to such a supply panel because of specific circumstances. However, the principle should remain that schools should employ only fully qualified teachers.

With every rule there is an exception. I did not hear the issue of ABA schools being mentioned during the debate. Several schools have not quite completed their deliberations, or their deliberations were prematurely concluded. The Programme for Government contains a commitment that ABA, as a methodology, continues but within the strict departmental constraints. The Programme for Government originally contained a commitment that 12 ABA schools would come under the departmental guarantee of ongoing funding. While the letter of the commitment was not broken the spirit certainly was. We have seen the rampant disassembly of ABA schools. There are schools where students receive a little ABA, which is a methodology, but are also taught in TEACCH and PES. These are not comparable with ABA, which is a way of interacting with the student. It is not a pedagogical learning methodology. One cannot combine them all but that is the eclectic mix the Department has been using.

Can Deputy Gogarty push to have the commitment restored to the Programme for Government?

Deputy Morgan, please do not interrupt. You know the rules.

I do not mind fair comment and fair debate. The issue of special needs and autism is on the work programme of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills. This will provide an opportunity to look at ABA and to revisit the rules on which the current Government policy on autism spectrum disorders is based. There has never been a proper Irish study of the best methods. All the research is imported. ABA expertise is also imported but we need to find the best fit for Ireland. There are tutors who are not qualified primary teachers but are qualified in ABA. Because they do not have primary teaching qualifications they cannot proceed. They could only be employed as glorified special needs assistants (SNAs). I am not disparaging SNAs but these people's qualifications were greater than what would be required to be an SNA. That is how some of them are operating in ABA schools at present. The one size fits all policy is not working.

This Bill would help the Department if it decided to enable ABA tutors to be employed as teachers. This exception would help ABA schools and would help the Department to match the needs of parents and children to the departmental framework. I do not wish to use the term "departmental lock" although people may feel they are being locked in. That is a digression in terms of the legislation but it is an important one because it gives ABA teachers a chance to get primary teaching qualifications over a reasonable period and to be paid adequately for their skill set. For many children with autism spectrum disorders ABA works. I thank Deputy Morgan for his valuable input. I will try to raise that point with the joint committee.

The legislation formalises the current involvement of VECs at primary level and enables other VEC schools to come into the primary system. Other speakers have referred to the decoupling of certain religious schools in the Dublin Archdiocese, which was welcomed by everyone at the time. I know there is no pressure on the Catholic Church to divest specific schools but this will be done on the basis of demographics and the needs of particular areas. I welcome that progress.

There is not much to say if one welcomes the idea of VEC involvement at primary level, except to say one welcomes it. Deputy Joan Burton spoke about the need for adequate resourcing and of the situation in her constituency, which is where the model was rolled out.

I have a concern about how the roll-out of the VEC model relates to Educate Together schools. Educate Together have been campaigning to become a patron at second level. In my constituency there is an attempt by the Minister to get the VEC and Educate Together to look at the existing site in Clonburris. There are two sites in Clonburris but because the growth of Adamstown has slowed there is no longer a need to open schools on both sites. There will be only one site. There is, clearly, a demand for an Educate Together second level school and for a school to meet the needs of children leaving Archbishop Ryan senior national school in south Lucan. The model the Minister put in place provides an opportunity for the VEC and Educate Together to work together. I hope this is a template for the future, notwithstanding the demand and need for a solely Educate Together second level school.

There is a fear among the Educate Together fraternity — it may be misguided, paranoid or genuine — that the roll-out of VEC schools at primary level may call a halt to the roll-out of Educate Together primary schools. Educate Together has had to drag itself up by its boot straps and set up schools that were very parent driven. Theirs is a different form of democracy from the VEC model. Both are equally valid but they usually get into spats with one another as to which is more democratic, which is a wasted debate. However, there is a fear in Educate Together that they are looked down upon by the VECs and, possibly, by certain members of the education fraternity and that their model is seen as no different from the VEC model at second level. There are significant differences between Educate Together and VEC schools. That is why I hope the partnership works out. The fear at primary level is that as VEC schools are rolled out, the opportunities to establish parent driven Educate Together schools will dwindle. If this is part of an ingenious long-term plan to secularise Irish education, we could be waiting until 2116 until this aim is achieved. Perhaps we should be up-front about religion in our schools. I note Deputy Olivia Mitchell is nodding her head in agreement with some of my comments.

It would be difficult to know whether a majority would vote against religion in schools were a referendum held tomorrow. It is certainly the case that a large number of people want to maintain religious instruction, and this right is protected under the Constitution. However, a growing number does not want anything to do with religion or is from a minority faith. Multi-denominational education is important in this regard.

Deputy Quinn has on many occasions raised the issue of atheists, agnostics and those who do not have any religious affiliation. These individuals also have a right to educate their children in an ethos that respects their points of view. It could be argued that atheism is a religious belief system in its own right. At some point in the future we will have to decide whether belief systems should be an intrinsic part of our education system.

A referendum, whether held tomorrow or in five years' time, would be divisive and could allow fundamentalist views to be expressed forthrightly. It is not the kind of subject that leads to violence on the streets but it certainly would alienate a significant number of people. It would not be constructive if hurtful comments were made.

Like it or not, the present model encourages choice and diversity. The introduction of VEC patronage is a further step on the long journey of ensuring all parents have a choice. Where population growth creates demands for new schools, the new patrons will be VECs and people who desire a traditional Catholic education for their children may not be satisfied. The VECs have to be more proactive than simply rescuing children who cannot get a place. Those involved in education on the church side see space for more Catholic schools in various areas.

My personal, as opposed to political, view is that perhaps we should grab the bull by the horns and phase out religious instruction. While a school may continue to celebrate its Catholic or multi-denominational ethos, religious instruction would be given outside school hours. This would reduce the pressure on students to differentiate amongst themselves There may not be conscious discrimination but feelings of differentiation can also be dangerous. The multi-denominational model, however, celebrates all faiths and none.

The Bill limits itself to VECs and the issue of unqualified teachers. However, the provisions for boards of management under the Education Acts also need to be addressed. I am sure I am like other Members in that I have received information on boards of management which took decisions in what was perceived as an undemocratic manner. Parents can feel isolated because they do not get enough training or are ganged up on by certain individuals. Instead of allowing the patron to wield the power on boards, they should be community based, with stronger parental and staff input. The days of a bishop dictating the wishes of parents should be long gone.

Notwithstanding the despicable cases of abuse, we should be grateful to the Catholic Church for its contribution to education over the years. Were it to divest itself of all its institutions tomorrow at a fair price for the work put in by religious orders, this economy would be doubly bankrupt. We cannot force the church out of education nor should we try to do so but boards of management should be restructured to allow for more democratic involvement. Under the VEC model, county councillors and parents' groups are appointed to boards of management, which is a form of democracy, but they are often overruled by principals or patrons. Parents do not have enough say in what happens in their children's schools. In the longer term, we need root and branch reform of our education law, particularly in regard to boards of management.

I welcome the main thrust of this Bill, which gives formal and legal recognition to the VEC primary school model. The legislation comes in response to demands for change in our educational models at primary level. I support the demands for faith based schools and believe they should continue to be available to the many parents who want them for their children. However, they should not be the only patronage model for our schools.

Archbishop Martin has pointed out that 92% of schools are Catholic even though only 70% of the population follow that religion. Only half of Catholic parents desire religious based education. Ireland is changing with immigration and intermarriage and our population has become much more diverse. The educational system has to meet the needs of this new diversity. People want choice and if 50% of parents want Catholic education, they should be entitled to it. A number of Protestant schools are located in my constituency and there continues to be strong demand for this model. However, we must also reflect our changing population. Parent groups are seeking different models of education, such as VECs, gaelscoileanna and Educate Together, all of which reflect a changing Ireland.

On a recent Saturday morning, I attended a meeting held to establish demand for an Educate Together school.

I was amused to hear that at 7.30 a.m. on a Saturday, there was a queue of parents forming to register their children's names on the grounds that they would be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. Within an hour, 120 children were registered. There is certainly demand for a variety of school models. We should take this into account.

There is a need for a master plan outlining how we should move from the one model we had in the past to a variety of models. We need a roadmap. At present, we have an ad hoc approach that depends, perhaps, on a few enterprising parents in a particular area with some vision of the kind of education model they would like. That is all very well but it is not the basis for a good, sound national educational plan.

If the church wants to divest itself of school ownership and responsibility, as appears to be the case in many instances, we need an agreed mechanism for that to happen. There is urgency in this regard. In my area and, I am sure, others, parents are voting with their feet. Schools are losing pupils, not because there is a lack of children but because people want alternative models. Rather than have buildings go to waste and have people fighting change or trying to poach pupils in other schools, we should determine what people want in any given area and plan for that. Thus, money would not be wasted building schools where there are existing schools that people have decided, for whatever reason, not to support.

The VEC model is welcome and represents a possibility anywhere. However, where are the schools to be? What assessment has been done of the cost of the VEC school model? Have other models been assessed? Is the VEC model the best? What is the plan? Have criteria been laid down as to the kind of school models that will exist in the future?

How is demand being established in any locality? It is not a good idea for Educate Together schools and Gaelscoileanna to be running Saturday morning get-togethers. I suspect parents would put their names down on lists at several such events. Something needs be done on a national basis. A mechanism needs to be put in place to determine how existing schools pass into State ownership from clerical ownership. We must determine how existing schools can morph from faith-based schools under religious patronage to Educate Together or VEC schools. There is urgency in this regard. Fine Gael has called for a national forum to decide how to move forward. It does not matter what it is called; we need something other than the ad hoc approach that seems to obtain at present.

The transfer of responsibility for speech and language services from the Department of Education and Skills to the HSE ought to be mentioned. It bothers me because I do not know what is behind it. There has always been tension between education and health services where they interface. Parents of children with special needs have always been going from Billy to Jack seeking health-related services in an educational setting.

I welcome the change, however, in the sense that it allows for clarity of responsibility. At least we know who is not responsible. The Department of Education and Skills will no longer be responsible. Where does responsibility now lie? Children will still need speech and language services in a school setting. Nobody in this House is unaware how woefully pathetic the speech and language services have been in our schools. How will the relevant section of the Bill change this? Will the services still be available in the school setting or will parents have to travel outside school hours to gain access to services?

If I were a parent of a child with a disability, I would be extremely worried. I just do not know what agenda is being pursued for special needs children. For years, the impetus was towards integrated schooling in a mainstream setting but now responsibility for therapies is shifting out of schools. In spite of this, children with disabilities need these therapies. Supports in schools are being removed, special educational needs posts are being abolished and special classes are being closed down. However, we do not know what setting the Department envisages for special needs children in the future.

Integration into mainstream schools is now being dismantled. Perhaps this is a good thing for some children; I do not know. However, if there is to be a change, we should know what model is in place. Parents need to know the model and need to be able to plan for their children's education, especially when those children have severe disabilities. In many cases, it is necessary to plan where one is going to live because schools for children with special needs, if they are to comprise the model of the future, will not be as numerous as mainstream schools. At present, parents, particularly of young children, are in a complete vacuum in terms of what the future holds. We need a major debate on this to achieve clarity on the Department's thinking thereon.

I want to deal with the section on the use of unqualified personnel. To be honest, I do not know where the proposal came from in this era of surplus graduates. Many of us were at the USI lobby meeting today where reference was made to the emigration of as many as 1,000 graduates per week. This seems to be a very large number but, even if the number is only half that, it is far too many. Everybody would agree that there is no shortage of teachers available at present. It may be there is some very good reason behind the proposal. Deputy Gogarty mentioned ABA schools, which may require different training and which may have different needs. Perhaps the new curriculum for maths may require teachers who are not necessarily qualified as teachers but who have a superior qualification. However, that is not what is being said. Apparently it is being said there is no availability of teachers, but I do not believe it.

There are databases of available teachers. Young graduate teachers I know are willing to travel miles for work and across the country, if necessary. The introduction of unqualified personnel to the classroom is a retrograde step. We need to maintain a standard of professionalism in schools. If we do not do so, we can kiss any future for our children goodbye. That is really important to bear in mind. We spend thousands of euro educating our teachers but then let them emigrate or languish in the dole queues. Even if young people are only given part-time or temporary work, they must be given the opportunity to get their foot in the door and gain some experience, thus enhancing their prospects of obtaining employment in the future.

I agree with Deputy Gogarty, whose point may be ageist, that principals have a responsibility to give available jobs to graduates rather than teachers retired on good pensions. This may be controversial and perhaps I will be one of the teachers looking for a job in time to come. However, who is going to pay the teachers' pensions but the young graduates of today? If they are not working, who will pay the pensions? It is time for a little intergenerational solidarity in this area.

Fine Gael will not be supporting the introduction of unqualified teachers to schools. It represents a retrograde step and unless there are very strict safeguards, I will not contemplate supporting it. There are safeguards but they are very weak. They state the principal "may" do this or that but there is no statement that he or she "must" do this or that to ensure the employment of unqualified teachers will only be temporary. This needs to be re-examined.

I broadly support the principle of this Bill. It is not an earth-shattering Bill nor is it of any great importance.

I acknowledge the role the religious orders have played in the running of schools over the past century or centuries. It is easy to knock them in light of recent abuse cases. Too much emphasis has been placed on the control of schools. I have no difficulty with any model, be it the VEC, Educate Together or Gaelscoil model, but believe we have missed the point regarding primary education. I would like children to have access to Gaelscoileanna country-wide. It is important to acknowledge the high percentage of people who speak or are competent in Irish in Carlow town. Gaelscoil Eoghain Uí Thuairisc, County Carlow was founded some 30 years ago by a Clare woman, Bríd de Róiste. She has generated a love of Irish in that community and it is important that all children, resources permitting, have access to Irish.

This Bill is not earth shattering. The issue of primary education is dear to my heart. It is an issue on which I have spoken many times since becoming a Member of this House. Rather than improving, our education system has deteriorated. I am concerned about the difficulties being experienced with numeracy and literacy. Every child that comes out of the primary system should be able to read and write. However, this is not the case. I would hazard a guess that the statistics in this regard have deteriorated in recent years and for a number of reasons, the main one being that the curriculum has in recent times become too broad. Teachers do not have the time to put emphasis on the basic foundation stones of any education, numeracy and literacy. We are teaching children how to write creatively when some cannot join up letters or write at all. Weaker children in particular are suffering as the teacher moves on with stronger students in the group. I would like the Department or Minister to run a ruler over any available statistics in regard to the time spent on numeracy, literacy and Irish some ten, 15 or 20 years ago relative to today. There is a strong correlation between the number of people who currently have literacy difficulties and the amount of time spent on teaching in that regard.

I am a great believer in equality of opportunity. One cannot guarantee equality of outcome but one should ensure equality of opportunity. There are only two methods by which this can be achieved, namely, through the education system and the housing system. Our housing policy in terms of social housing has failed dramatically. Generation after generation of people are living in ghettos in various parts of the country. On dyslexia, many primary teachers do not know how to recognise this difficulty. Many children go through the primary system without this difficulty having been identified. We must put resources into primary education to ensure equality of opportunity. It is too late to address this difficulty when children reach second level. I am sure the argument will be made that we do not have the resources to provide special needs assistants.

I compliment the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Ó Cuív, on bringing forward the proposals in regard to work fare as opposed to welfare, a subject which is dear to my heart. The vast majority of the 460,000 plus people who are unemployed would be happy to do some sort of work. This would benefit their self esteem and society. One of the greatest assistants a teacher can have in a classroom is the parent of a child experiencing difficulty. Many parents who are in receipt of jobseekers or various other allowances would be happy to assist a teacher in the classroom. I have visited schools where this is in practice and it is working well. This practice could be introduced countrywide.

I recall the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, as Minister for Health and Children back in the halcyon days of 1998 making great pronouncements about every classroom having a computer. Many of these computers are lying around covered in dust because teachers have not been trained to use them or are not competent in computer usage. Parents could also be brought in to assist teachers in the use of computers. Our most experienced teachers, generally principals, are caught up in administration of schools, leaving them little time to focus on education issues. We must consider the concept of grouping schools and appointing an administrator to look after them, leaving principals, who very often have come through the school system and have 20 or 30 years educational experience, to concentrate on educational matters and the difficulties being experienced by many children owing to the breakdown in home units rather than counting sweeping brushes, checking car park spaces or potholes in the school car park. This resource too is freely available. I ask the Minister to consider the concept of appointing on a pilot basis an administrator to a group of schools. An administrator could, for example, be appointed to look after three or four schools in the constituency of Cork North-Central, which is represented by the Acting Chairman, Deputy O'Flynn, thereby leaving the principals to concentrate on education matters. Our educational difficulties are playing second fiddle to administrative difficulties.

Many primary schools are in poor condition. I will not list all of them but there are two in my constituency, St. Saviour's in Rathdrum and the primary school in Hackettstown, which has been designated as disadvantaged. The Department needs to revise its list of disadvantaged schools as it may be dated, with some schools that should never have been included placed on the list for spurious reasons. I am aware of some schools that have not been designated disadvantaged and I can only hazard a guess as to why.

Another issue of concern to me, which is not directly related to this Bill but is related to primary education into the future, is that many fine facilities built around the country, for which the Department of Justice and Law Reform granted money, have or will become white elephants during the next few years. These facilities were built with a view to providing easy access to child care for both parents as they were needed in the workforce. The position has now changed. Many of these facilities were built away from educational facilities. We need a policy in regard to where these facilities are being built so that when they are no longer required they can be integrated with school facilities. The facility in Tinahely, County Wicklow was built adjacent to the school.

The HSE, in terms of accessing services such as dental and speech and language services, is the bane of every politician's life. It is difficult to find out who is responsible for what. I am not sure if providing in this legislation that these services will become the responsibility of the HSE will solve the problem. It is difficult to get through to the HSE on the phone let alone get anything done. These services would be better operated by the Department of Education and Science or some arm of it. The health and welfare of our children should be the responsibility of the Minister for Education and Skills.

We are sending out into the wider community children who cannot read and write because our curriculum is too broad. The new curriculum introduced several years ago is flawed. It is time it was revisited.

I wish to share time with Deputy Michael Kitt.

I welcome the introduction of this Bill to the House which provides us with an opportunity to speak on it and to make observations on education in general. We live in changing times in terms of education. I come from a county which for many years had a conventional type of education system in the form of primary and secondary schools. In recent years, however, there have been many changes in the area at primary, second and third level. We now have Educate Together schools in Gorey and Wexford town. Proposals have also been submitted for the construction of a new Educate Together school in Enniscorthy. Also, there are gaelscoileanna in four towns in Wexford and a second level gaelscoil. We have a wide variety of educational systems in our county.

A new secondary school due to open in Wexford next year will cater for 1,000 students based in Gorey. Competition in regard to who will get patronage of this school is already under way between the Educate Together community and County Wexford VEC. This has created quite a stir, particularly in Gorey and the area surrounding it. Public meetings have been held and the Tánaiste has set up a body which has been charged with engaging in discussions with the various groups to establish the model of patronage that should be put in place in respect of running the school.

Politicians have been lobbied strongly by County Wexford VEC and the Educate Together movement, both of which are seeking to be appointed as patron for the school. We should consider amalgamating a certain section of the VEC with Educate Together and charge this entity with running the new secondary school in Gorey. What is most important is that the school should be brought into operation as soon as possible. We are indebted to the Tánaiste because from next September she will lease a building in which the initial intake of first year students will be able to commence classes. The new school is due to come on stream by 2013. There is a strong commitment to it.

As the Tánaiste stated, the purpose of the Bill is to facilitate the involvement of the vocational education committees in the provision of primary education for the first time. It also deals with a number of other education-related matters. As she pointed out, the Bill is one of several that are necessary so that we might cater for the changing educational requirements throughout the country.

I have no difficulty with vocational education committees being involved in the provision of primary education, per se. However, I have certain reservations regarding some of the operations of the VECs at present. They have moved away from many of the ideals they pursued when they were first established. In addition, I am not sure whether some of them are operating in the best interests of schools or students. Perhaps the Tánaiste’s suggestion that a number of them be amalgamated will bring about a change.

I cannot understand why it is proposed to amalgamate the Wexford and Wicklow VECs. Wexford has a more natural relationship with Carlow and has always had a strong involvement with that county. However, the Tánaiste and her advisers have seen fit to amalgamate the Wexford and Wicklow VECs. Wicklow is a large county and, in Bray, it has an extremely large urban centre. The concern in Wexford is that the centre for the new VEC structure will be based in that town rather than at a location that is equidistant from Dublin and Rosslare. Given the size of the geographical area involved, it would be more suitable to situate the new headquarters in Gorey or at some other point on the border between the two counties. We will leave that argument to another day but I am sure people will have much to say to the Tánaiste in respect of this matter. I have no difficulty with the proposed amalgamation. Under the existing VEC system, there has been too much bureaucracy and administrative waste. There is certainly a need to bring about a change. I welcome that change but I am not overly happy with regard to the amalgamation of the Wexford and Wicklow VECs.

Some of the changes proposed in the Bill are extremely worthwhile. However, I again request that the Tánaiste reconsider the position with regard to the abolition of the educational disadvantage committee. I do not know why this proposed move is taking place.

Under the Bill, responsibility for speech therapy services is to be transferred to the HSE. That organisation has not been very progressive when it comes to the provision of speech therapy or other services required by young people. Serious consideration must be given to this matter on Committee Stage. Disadvantaged status is extremely important for schools. Some of the schools that were previously in the DEIS programme have been removed from it, while others are trying to obtain entry to it. I refer in particular to schools based in large urban centres which are obliged to deal with the problems to which their very location gives rise. The Tánaiste must consider how we will deal with this matter in the future. Students in some schools are not receiving the level of speech therapy they require. Those who rely on the HSE for services in this area are certainly not receiving what they require. Politicians are often obliged to make strong representations on behalf of young children who are expected to wait one or two years or perhaps longer for speech therapy and other services.

The Tánaiste outlined the background to the Bill and referred to the pilot schemes that were launched in three counties. Such a scheme should have been run in a rural area. The areas in counties Dublin, Meath and Kildare in which the pilot schemes were run would not be regarded as rural. It is important that there be a rural bias in the models that are being established.

What is happening in this regard dates back to 2007, when the then Minister, Deputy Hanafin, announced her intention to devise a new model of primary school patronage. The reason behind this move was that some of the Catholic clergy signalled that they wanted to either opt out of or did not want to be as involved in the running of schools in the future. It was important, therefore, that a new patronage structure be established. In light of the many religious denominations that are to be found here following the huge influx of immigrants in recent years, it is only correct that a new model be developed.

The result of this process is that we are now discussing community national schools. Community schools have been operating in the second level sector for many years. There are community schools in Gorey and New Ross and these work reasonably well. I have reservations with regard to the boards of management of such schools, which appear to be a law unto themselves. Problems arose in Gorey in recent years when we tried to encourage the community school there to take in additional students while the new school was coming on stream. The board of management was extremely difficult to deal with in that regard.

It is important that the new boards of management should be widely representative and should, perhaps, contain a strong local bias. In particular, the chairpersons of boards of management should be based locally. In some cases in Wexford, the chairpersons of boards of management were based in Donegal or Dublin. They were certainly based outside the mainstream of educational provision in the county. Will the Tánaiste give serious consideration to the composition of boards of management? I urge her to ensure that at least the chairpersons of these boards should be based locally and should have a direct involvement in educational provision in their areas.

When she is replying to the debate, perhaps the Tánaiste will expand somewhat on the employment of unregistered teachers. I do not have a major difficulty in this regard but when the Bill was published I was contacted by a number of qualified primary school teachers who have serious reservations in respect of this matter. I understand from where the Minister is coming but the matter needs to be teased out further. Perhaps it might be possible to reach some form of agreement with the INTO in respect of how we might deal with this issue. This is a problem which must be tackled, although it must be remembered that there are not as many unregistered teachers as previously.

I accept that there is a bone of contention regarding the practice of retired teachers re-entering the system to cover holiday periods, substitute for those who are on sick leave, and so on. This type of thing is happening at a time when fully qualified teachers cannot obtain employment. This is an extremely sensitive issue.

I welcome the Bill but I have a number of reservations about it. Perhaps the Tánaiste might consider introducing some changes on Committee Stage. I am sure some of the positive ideas that have been put forward by Members on all sides will be taken on board and that, ultimately, we will be left with strong legislation that will cater for the changes that are required in the area of primary education provision.

I thank Deputy Browne for sharing time. I welcome the opportunity to make a brief contribution to the debate on the Education (Amendment) Bill 2010. The first sentence in the memorandum states that the VEC will get additional powers in the Bill, which I welcome. This is a model of patronage for schools at primary level and its introduction is to be welcomed. Patronage has been debated for many years and I have always wondered about the role of the VECs in this area. It is clearly a very local patronage and to have involvement with the VEC in any county is important. I have often felt that we should deal with local vocational education committees in the primary school system rather than continuously dealing with officials in Tullamore with regard to buildings, Athlone for teaching positions or the Department of Education and Skills on Marlborough Street. This is a welcome development.

Patronage is not the only issue arising for boards of management. As somebody with experience on the board of management in my local school of Castleblakeney, I would say many other issues arise regarding the upkeep of a school. We welcome that there has been much money spent in refurbishing schools and carrying out extensions. Deputy Connaughton and I would advocate new schools in places like Aughrim and Cahergal near Tuam, and that would be a major concern for boards of management in schools alongside the patronage issue.

It is interesting that religious orders were not always the patrons of schools and chairpersons of boards of management. Many lay persons through the years have been equally as good as local parish priests or the curate, who would normally be chairpersons of the boards of management in schools.

An interesting question arises with regard to school inspections. It is my understanding that the school inspection is a very important part of primary school involvement, with an inspection involving an inspector being in a school for a full week, perhaps, rather than a single day, as has been the case in the past. It would involve an inspector meeting the board of management before an inspection and after the week's work. I wonder how the VEC would work in such a role, taking into account whether the entire committee would be involved or a small section, or if it would be involved at all in the inspection.

Many issues have raised the concern about young teachers looking for teaching positions. Given that this Government has committed to 500 extra primary teachers over two years, it is an interesting question that should be teased out. There cannot be a chicken and egg scenario where a young teacher is told that if he or she has no experience, he or she cannot have a job. Teachers must start somewhere but in many cases schools seek teachers with experience. Where will teachers gain experience if they cannot get even temporary teaching work in the schools?

The Department of Education and Skills decides at primary level how many teachers to have in the primary system. Somebody going to a teacher training college is looking to qualify, although we also have the Hibernia College system, which is an excellent course and a good way to train to be a teacher. It is very different at secondary level, as people do a primary degree and if somebody does a bachelor of arts or a bachelor of commerce, we do not know if they will proceed to teaching as there are other opportunities in journalism, commerce and business. We cannot estimate the number of people who will look for jobs at secondary level as a result. The numbers at primary level are clearer. People have mentioned teachers who retired in recent years but the vacancies still do not exist for the young teachers from the teacher training colleges.

I am a member of the INTO so I declare an interest in the following issue. That union has raised the matter of unregistered teachers who work in exceptional and limited circumstances. Those in the teaching profession have asked if this would happen in any other profession, such as the legal or medical spheres, and I hope the Minister will reply to that query. I remember some years ago it was difficult to get teachers to go to islands, for example, and it was sometimes difficult to get teachers in disadvantaged areas or the Gaeltacht. There was a suggestion that extra pay or a bonus could be given to teachers in those cases. I can see how the Minister refers to exceptional and limited circumstances but from the teaching and union perspective, the view is different.

There are issues relating to speech therapy. One of the most interesting parts of the Bill concerns the miscellaneous amendments. Speech therapy services and other health and personal services will be transferred to the HSE as a result. This should be clarified as we, as public representatives, have been wondering where the contact point is for speech therapy, physiotherapy, occupational therapy and the dental services mentioned by other speakers. It is important that these issues be clarified.

I mentioned the HSE and there was a question in the past about the abolition of health boards. We are now to reduce the number of VECs but there is concern that when the HSE was established, apart from some CEOs, nobody seemed to lose a job. More people were employed at the end of the day and questions on the same issue are now being asked about VECs. How will the savings referred to by the McCarthy report be achieved?

Before dealing with such matters, we should at least clarify that contact points exist for the health services, which are already very aligned to primary education. The health services operate in very close co-operation with teachers, with doctors or nurses visiting schools and a dental programme is in operation. It is very important that young children with health difficulties are identified at a very early stage, and it is important that the HSE and the Department work together.

I hope the Bill, although limited in its amendments, will allow us proceed to a wider type of patronage. There is certainly a very strong feeling among people that there should be more options and we are living in a different age than before. There are gaelscoileanna and Educate Together schools, along with multi-education units. We must also think about those who are often described as the "new Irish" and the provision of different language programmes for those who are newly arrived in the country. We must work closely with a view to improving services. The work we are doing in the Oireachtas, in tandem with the Department of Education and Skills, is important. It is vital that teachers are registered with the Teaching Council so that people are qualified to deal with these various issues. I hope the few questions I have raised will be taken on board by the Minister and she might be able to reply to them.

The VECs will be reduced from 33 to 16, which is even more than what was sought in the McCarthy report. People might envisage savings to be made in this but I am prepared to wait and see. In Galway, I worked closely with the county VEC for which I have high regard. Now that Galway county and city will have one committee, I hope public representatives, particularly, will still be represented on it.

I wish to share time with Deputy Crawford.

The Education (Amendment) Bill 2010 is like the curate's egg; it is good in parts. I welcome any development of VEC involvement in the provision of primary education, as I have always been an advocate of the VEC's achievements in second level education. The ethos and diversity they brought to this sector will now serve many communities well in the provision of primary school education.

Some years ago the VECs got a bad press. Thirty years ago this was a different country. If it were not for the presence of the VECs, many men and women would be in far less favoured positions than they are now. The VECs gave many across the country the ability to secure employment and make a good living for themselves.

In a debate some months ago on an education motion, I was amazed at the common ground held by all Members on all sides of the House, between liberals and conservatives, young and the not-so-young. All Members will agree no matter what education system we have, it must be parent and child-centred.

Neither do I have a hang-up with who is the patron of the school. Some people, particularly in the national press, give the impression that if the Roman Catholic Church could be got out of school patronage, that is 92% of all schools, the effect would be good for the country. Nothing could be further from the truth. I accept that swathes of people have gone away from organised religion and do not attend mass, a matter which is entirely their business. On the other hand, they would still like their children to be educated locally at a Catholic school. There will never be a question of throwing out the baby with the bath water in this regard. However, the House must also ensure those who may wish to have their children educated at another denominational or non-denominational school have all facilities and an even playing pitch provided to them.

This Bill is the first step towards achieving this. While only a few VECs are already involved in primary school education, for many years there have been calls for more VEC involvement in the area. I am delighted the Government has decided to introduce it through this legislation. The education system must be parent and pupil centred. The gaelscoileanna and Educate Together schools have made great strides in education provision over several years, largely due to the fervour of their campaigners. Some of the most remarkable feats I have seen to get schools off the ground have been done voluntarily by these groups. In Galway, I recall some of the gaelscoileanna starting in buildings no better than sheds. Now these very same schools have some of the best facilities. The VECs' track record in second level education means there should be no doubt about the implementation of this Bill's provisions.

A primary school is a place of learning at which people entrust their children with a regime and hope that, as an extension of the home, they will be well looked after and their capabilities fully recognised and realised. It is one thing for a second level school to announce 20 of its students got 600 points in the leaving certificate. While I accept every school should aspire to academic excellence, those at the bottom with 300 points must also have realised their ultimate capabilities so they can move on to the appropriate next step in their education. The VECs have been remarkably good at adult learning and making the connection for their students with institutes of technology. Many thousands of people have jobs today who probably would not have made it if not for their experience with the VEC under one guise or another.

On the boards of management of schools — the ones I know best are those of Catholic schools — we all owe a great debt of gratitude to those people who work for nothing. When something goes wrong they are the baddies in the parish even though they have almost nothing to do with what has happened. It is a remarkable responsibility, even more so when there is trouble in school. If for some strange reason they were written out of the text in the morning who would replace them? Would we be able to get somebody to do it for nothing? A large number of things need to be discussed at this stage. There is a need for an overall policy on this. It is becoming a huge jigsaw. There will be many stakeholders involved and I am not sure that this or any other Government until now had a real handle on where we are going next, given the shift in population and all the things that go with it. There is a huge need to examine the issue.

In the few minutes I have at my disposal, I want to discuss the switch in the Bill which gives responsibility for speech and language services to the HSE and removes any existing Department of Education and Skills responsibility for it. I am totally against this provision. It is wrong. Who is more likely to identify a child with a problem at national school level than a teacher who has been standing in front of him or her since the day he or she arrived in at the age of four? If the teacher is not able to identify what is going on at that stage, who can? There are only three people who are hugely important at that stage of a child's life, the child's parents and the teachers that teach him or her from day one.

I am not an educationalist but I have seen a great deal of education. Many things are not picked up even with the sort of connection the teacher has with a child from day one in junior infants and throughout school. If a teacher, for whatever reason, did not have a connection with the HSE who would do the connecting? The connectivity would be gone. Even with the switch-over if the facilities in future are not better than those we have now it will not be good enough. The Minister of State is a lively local politician and knows that there is not a day in the week where we do not beg the HSE to give the all important few hours for speech therapy to ensure that at the particular stage in the child's life when it is needed it will be worth a great deal when he or she enters adulthood and faces what lies ahead in the big bad world.

There are a few things I like in the Bill but there are a few things I cannot understand and I hope the Minister will explain the rationale behind them to me. A large number of teachers tell me every year that they send out 60 or 100 copies of their curriculum vitae and never got an answer. This has happened across several counties and all over Ireland. The Bill contains a provision that people who do not have the same qualifications, or any qualifications as teachers, as far as I am aware, can get a part-time job or stand in in a school. I cannot understand why that would be enshrined in legislation.

I fully appreciate that there are occasions when a principal receives a phone call from a teacher who was struck down on a Monday morning and cannot not come into work. That principal is then required to find a teacher to take charge of the class. We now have better IT systems and methods of identification of teachers more of whom are unemployed, and the Minister should take another look at the situation. This provision would engender a great deal of anger in many people I know who could not get a job this year.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. It is important for many areas of the country. I am well aware of the expansion in housing in the greater Dublin area and other places where no schools exist and new schools are wanted. As the Minister said, in some areas there is no link with any church or structures and there is clearly a need for a new system which will cover such areas. The VECs are well placed to take control of that issue in the context suggested by the Minister in the Bill.

It is not a major issue in a constituency such as Cavan-Monaghan where churches on all sides still have a major interest in schools and most of them have independent parent-led committees that do a great deal of work in the running of the schools, along with the teachers, or fundraising where it is needed. Many smaller schools have been fortunate enough to get devolved grants which meant that the committees run by the parents had to raise sizeable sums of money. It was a great system and transformed many of the smaller schools. I would like the issue to be re-examined and instigated again if at all possible.

The VEC schools have a proud record in my area, Cavan-Monaghan. When I consider the great work done in recent years by the current vocational education officer, Mr. Martin O'Brien, it is fantastic. The VEC in Monaghan has been given a lead role by the Taoiseach in a pilot scheme where it is building a new version of a college with a primary school and secondary school, both of which are gaelscoileanna, on the same site, which also has a theatre planned for it. A site is still available for another educational authority if necessary.

Mr. Martin O'Brien is the leader of the project and his ability is fantastic. He has led the reconstruction of Beech Hill, added classrooms and sports facilities in Ballybay Community College and added significant structures and facilities in the college for sports and woodwork. Additional land was purchased in Castleblaney for a much needed extension and he upgraded the existing building in Clones for a material technical class and woodwork. One of the biggest areas that he has provided for is the Tanagh Outdoor Pursuits Centre for which he now has the money and which will guarantee sport and recreation for the future. There are also new outreach centres there.

This shows what can be done by a VEC. However, there are questions over the State control of schools. One example of that is the Model School in Monaghan, one of the few model schools in the country. The Minister is its patron.

Debate adjourned.