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

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

This legislation is one of several measures currently being progressed by the Government to cater for the changing nature of Irish society and the new requirements of education provision. There have already been many developments that have helped bring about greater diversity in our education system. Today's legislation is just one of many ongoing developments and I welcome the Tánaiste's commitment to this area.

We have come a long way since this debate began. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin indicated previously that where there is no demand for a Catholic ethos or patronage in a school the church is willing to consider releasing schools from its patronage. Following on from this, the Department of Education and Skills, at the request of the Catholic Church, undertook to identify areas that may offer potential for the church to divest patronage of certain schools. A total of 43 town areas satisfied the criteria set down by the Department and six were selected at random. The results of this review were published in August 2010.

It is important that we have a full consultation with the patron, the management of the school and staff before any decision is taken on handing over patronage from the Catholic Church. I fully support full consultation. I would like to see full consultation with the patron, management, staff, parents and pupils. Sometimes people feel they are not consulted enough. To try to get a successful outcome to any decision, particularly in the education field, it is of the utmost importance that full consultation take place with all interested parties.

The Department has stated that it will put processes in place to consult with the local communities, including prospective patrons, on the future patronage of these identified schools. I hope and believe the Department will do as it has said and put processes in place. We do not want to hear at a later stage, when it is too late, that the community felt they were not adequately consulted. It is important that they be adequately consulted, beforehand and not afterwards. It is no excuse to say, when things have happened, that we meant to do this or that or that we should have talked to this or that group. We have plenty of time and we have been given plenty of notice. Everyone should be consulted.

While the introduction of a new form of patronage is welcome, we must remember that 92% of schools are in the hands of the Catholic Church and we must continue to look at how we are going to divest control of some schools in the areas identified by the Department.

It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the Catholic Church for supplying education to the people of counties Longford and Westmeath in my constituency. The church has given fantastic service over a century or more and was completely committed and dedicated. Most of the people of my constituency owe their knowledge and education to the Catholic Church. The schools have been of the highest standard and the commitment of the priests, nuns and lay people has been second to none. When people return to the constituency for school re-unions one can see that, thanks to their education, they have had successful careers academically, professionally or in trade.

I hope to see the progression of trialling arrangements in this area. The introduction of the Bill reminds me of the need to ensure that we have a transparent and appropriate system for recognising primary schools. This is very important. As new schools are created and as the Church considers which schools it will consider divesting, we must ensure a transparent set of criteria is in place for deciding who should be chosen as patrons. This is critical as we discuss this Bill.

It has recently come to light that certain people in certain professions were not qualified to do or were incapable of doing their jobs. We do not want to repeat this mistake in respect of the patronage of schools, particularly new primary schools. Let the process in which we engage not be slipshod. Let it be transparent and in the public domain, and let people see who the patrons are to be. Let the people have their say and make a comment, one way or another, before patronage is decided upon, not afterwards.

The Education (Amendment) Bill 2010 doubtlessly represents further progress in achieving greater diversity in our primary school system. I welcome the debate on the amendment to the Teaching Council Act 2001 allowing the use of unqualified teachers in certain circumstances. This must be debated further because greater clarity is needed. I have received numerous representations, and rightly so, on behalf of qualified teachers in this regard. Many teachers who are qualified to the highest standard find themselves unemployed in the present economic climate. Qualified teachers must be given priority. I appeal to the boards of management of schools to address the issue. The boards are doing a good job overall on a voluntary basis and might not wish for interference from outside. While they meet regularly and are concerned, and they have the welfare of the pupils, teachers and schools at heart, it is no harm to ask them to give priority to newly qualified young teachers when filling vacancies.

Over the past century, in addition to having teachers teach in this State, we have sent teachers all over the world to teach. In the majority of cases, our teachers are held in the highest regard on foot of their having given a great education to pupils here and abroad. I hope the boards of management do not mind my suggesting that newly qualified young teachers should be given priority. I am sure most of them would agree with me in that respect.

With regard to VEC involvement in primary education, let me comment on the proposed amalgamation of the VECs nationwide. It is proposed that the VECs of Longford, Roscommon and Leitrim join together. I welcome the Minister's comment that she will meet all the CEOs first. This must and will be done. I thank the Minister for her commitment in this regard. The different bodies and unions involved in VEC education will be consulted. The last item on the agenda, after the discussions, will be to decide on the various headquarters for the various VECs.

County Longford VEC, Administrative Offices, Battery Road, Longford, has recently purchased approximately five acres at Connolly Barracks in Longford. It is an excellent site and would make very suitable headquarters for the VECs of Longford, Leitrim and Roscommon. I ask that this be kept in mind when the appropriate time comes.

I commend the Bill to the House.

I am glad of the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I recognise the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Haughey, this evening for this important debate.

This legislation has been in gestation for some years. The initial announcement on the legislation was approximately two years ago. We have had a number of Ministers responsible for education in the interim. Much has changed over the period in question, not least owing to the financial difficulties that have affected the country and the enormous pressure on the education and other budgets.

One of the best developments is the cross-party acceptance of the necessity to amalgamate VECs. I was the first politician to propose this and was attacked for doing so by colleagues on the other side of the House. I proposed it more than a year ago. At a time of scarce resources, we must direct funding under the education budget towards the front line and focus on quality. If this means altering structures and back-office positions, we must do so. I welcome the fact that the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, is a new convert to the idea of amalgamating VECs. I very much regret that her predecessor did not get on with the job two or three years ago when we had a blank canvas to start afresh. Much has changed in the two-year period to which I refer.

The Bill refers to the new community schools. Such schools are up and running. Two schools in west Dublin have been established and more are to become established. In many respects, the idea of a community national school is a little bizarre. The truth of the matter is that we have community national schools all over the country.

As I have stated in the past, in the great majority of cases these schools are Catholic but with a small "c". They are rooted in their communities and are attended by children of all faiths and none. These schools have served the country well and they have made a major impression on the learning experience of the children who have attended them.

It is not correct to say that there have never been State schools. I accept that they constitute a minority example but the model schools are effectively controlled by the Minister with responsibility for education and, prior to Independence, they were controlled by the commissioners for education. In addition, the VECs have been involved in post-primary education provision for many years. The idea has been put forward that what is proposed in the Bill is radically different. At one level it is radically different because, effectively, we are recognising the VECs as new patrons within the primary school system. However, I would not like people to think that the concept of community national schools is in some way new.

I accept that a number of issues must be addressed. Deputy Quinn has alluded to a fundamental issue in respect of which action is required and which is not dealt with in an adequate manner in the Bill. I refer to the provision of denominational religious tuition within the framework of the new community national schools. The Constitution is absolutely clear in respect of this matter. Article 42.2 states: "Parents shall be free to provide this education in their homes or in private schools or in schools recognised or established by the State." There was never a difficulty in providing State schools in Ireland because from 1937 onwards there has been a clear recognition that they can be provided. This matter was further highlighted in the Education Act 1998. So there has never been a problem with regard to this fundamental question of a pure State school.

As previous speakers stated, the problem arises with regard to how it might be possible to provide religious denominational tuition within the confines of the daily routine of a State school. It is one thing to say that State schools provide the full curriculum — including multi-faith options, which are a fundamental part of the entire religious curriculum — on a daily basis from 9 a.m. to 2.30 p.m. or 3 p.m. However, it is legally dubious to suggest that denominational instruction should be provided during the course of the school day. Such instruction can be provided after school, either in local churches or people's homes. Has consideration been given to whether it can be provided in the new schools that are to be established? I am not convinced that the Bill is constitutional in that regard.

In the various test cases that have been taken in the context of employment and other legislation, the Supreme Court has found that the Constitution fundamentally respects the right of religious schools to exist. It has also found that the Constitution respects the right of the authorities at such schools to select, based on their enrolment policies, both the children who will attend them and, based on religious criteria or whatever, the teachers who will provide instruction in them. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has always held that these schools have a right to exist and that the Constitution upholds that right. However, it is entirely different to suggest that a State primary school has the right to provide, within the course of the school day, religious tuition by denominational groups. I am of the view that the Bill could falter on that point and I would be interested in hearing the Tánaiste's opinion when she replies to the debate.

I and others had made calls for the introduction of a Bill of this nature for some years. I had come to the view that it would be a good development if we were to provide another type of educational choice, in the form of community national schools, in order to reflect the new multi-faith and multicultural Ireland. However, I have changed my mind. The Bill represents a missed opportunity. In the few years that I shadowed the Tánaiste, Deputy Coughlan, and her predecessors in the Department, I came to the view that what is needed is a root-and-branch reform of the structures which govern the education system. I am of the view that, ultimately, such an approach will require the Department of Education and Skills to be broken up.

If this approach is adopted, we must consider with what we might replace the Department. In my view, the new amalgamated VECs will be the logical intermediary between the Department and primary and post-primary schools and institutions which provide adult and community education. The VECs are the logical choice to form a stratum of government between the national and the local. In light of what I am suggesting, how would it be logical to ask the VECs to become the patrons of new primary schools? If I was to establish a new system of education, I would argue that the VECs should be responsible for regional educational policy in its entirety. Effectively, this would mean that they would be obliged to divest themselves of the post-primary schools for which they are responsible. There would be major suspicion on the part of Educate Together, the gaelscoileanna, voluntary secondary schools and a range of religious and other providers if the VECs became the new intermediaries responsible for local decision-making and if they did not divest themselves of their schools. If they did not follow the latter course, the VECs could not be perceived to be neutral providers.

There is some international evidence which supports the view that the Department of Education and Skills should be broken up. If effect, the evidence suggests that the Department should be responsible for monitoring curricular development, should engage in evaluation and should set policy. At present, every decision relating to education is taken by the Department. The system is crazy. Decisions on circulars dealing with everything from the advent of nuclear winter to instructions on how to repair a window must all be made by the Department in its various guises.

We must break the centralised approach and liberate school communities by establishing an intermediate system of governance. The obvious way to achieve this would be through the structures relating to the VECs. When she was Minister, Niamh Bhreathnach proposed the establishment of another tier — comprising regional education boards — between those relating to the Department and the VECs. The convincing arguments made against this proposal were that the money was simply not available and that if it were available, it would instead be invested in employing additional teachers or providing new schools. The arguments I refer to won the day.

Ms Bhreathnach also advocated that the VECs would remain in existence, which did not make sense.

Yes, she did advocate that. However, there is no reason that amalgamated VECs, with a much stronger mandate in respect of a number of counties, could not be the local levers of education policy within their communities.

On every occasion one reads an OECD report, one is confronted with various criticisms of the Department of Education and Skills. In the 1992 Green Paper on education, it was stated that the essential task of the Department was to formulate national policy, support and monitor educational developments, establish and ensure maintenance of national standards of quality, allocate available resources, engage in strategic planning, etc. I accept that these remain the tasks of the Department. However, the Department should not be involved with the day-to-day management of schools or decisions in such schools with regard to how resources are allocated or to whom. The Department has responsibility for decisions relating to capital spending, information technology and allocations. We have to recreate a system and have a wonderful opportunity to do so now. The way in which one recreates it is to give the VECs a new role.

I will point out some of the things for which I would give VECs a specific role. They should be responsible for the maintenance and management of building stock. It should not be a matter for Tullamore or the Department of Education and Skills. Local VECs should be able to take control of all educational buildings within their region and decide which need funding and which do not. There is no reason why that decision cannot be taken locally with some democratic accountability, as against the current highly politicised decision-making of the capital programme.

Why can VECs not take responsibility for school transport? It is an area for which the Minister of State has responsibility. I know I am giving his job away. What is the point, in the Department of Education and Skills, in deciding school transport policy for the entire country when that decision should be taken locally? The idea that the Minister of State would sign off on routes——

The locals might get it wrong.

Indeed they might.

Bus Éireann does a lot of it.

If one examines the recent innovations on sports provision facilities one will find it is where the VECs do get it right. They sweat the asset. When a new sports facility is established if it is a VEC school, as is the case in my constituency, it operates from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. That is not the case in many other schools in the country where when the doors closed at 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. the community are not allowed in.

For insurance purposes.

Yes. There is no reason why we cannot radically alter the way in which those decisions are made. Library research and information services should be dealt with locally as well, as should printing, publication and in-service teacher training. Why should Marlborough Street decide that? That is a matter for local educational providers to decide. If ever there was an area where one could save a fortune it is in the area of information technology support which should be provided on a regional basis. This is crucial

What I have described is an opportunity to radically alter the structure of Irish education. I am calling for a kind of liberation theology. If one takes what I am saying as possible it is logical that what we are doing here in allowing VECs to become patrons of the new community national school model would alter what they should be doing. I am also concerned that there might well be a view in the community that what we are doing here will create some kind of inferior schools to those which currently exist. There is a dreadful snobbery which exists in Irish education across the country.

I do not want a situation whereby religious primary schools, gaelscoileanna, Educate Together schools and now the new community national schools would encounter social mobility questions regarding whether one school is advantaged over the next. We are making it unwieldy and highly complicated. It flies in the face of international best practice. I have given this much thought and I have come to the view that if we are going to radically alter education we need to do it based on local democratic structures. If one is doing that one therefore has to alter the way in which the VEC is a patron for local primary and post primary schools.

I welcome this Bill. It is long overdue. I welcome the fact that the VECs are becoming involved in primary education. Whatever we may say about the VEC system it has been successful in the administration of education in localities throughout the country. The necessity for rationalisation has been long overdue and I welcome that development.

We should recognise the success we have had in this country in regard to patronage in education, in Catholic primary schools, the Educate Together system, gaelscoileanna and schools which have a Catholic ethos but a multi-denominational approach to education. We should not let this opportunity go without recognising the wonderful work the Catholic Church in this country has done in primary education through the years. It is interesting to note that when we received freedom in this country the founding fathers of all parties decided education was the single most important investment that the young State should make, notwithstanding the fact that there was not much money.

The success of the country and economy is down to the fact that the founding fathers of this State decided that primary education was the bedrock of a successful society and community. There is little doubt that the principles of the three Rs — reading, writing and arithmetic — have been the fundamental foundation of the success we have had as a nation in attracting multinational industries and becoming the high-tech society which we are today. We should acknowledge that, as well as the role the Catholic Church played when the State did not have the resources to develop a primary education system.

Now that the Catholic Church is getting out of the patronage of education we should acknowledge the many religious priests, nuns and brothers who did a wonderful job of work through the years. Unfortunately, the work of many great people has been blighted by the activities of a few and that is what has come to the fore. It is all the more reason why this House should acknowledge the wonderful work done and the great sacrifice made by so many religious, priests, nuns and brothers to the foundation of education in this country before and since we became a free State.

Given also that there are so few religious left, this Bill is overdue. The Department of Education and Skills has been lucky to get away with what it has, in terms of the diversity that has happened very quickly in our society since 2000. It is worthy of note that in one new school in Dublin all the enrolments comprised children from communities outside Ireland; there was no Irish child in the school. That such a thing could happen is a tragedy. Thankfully, it was arrested and the situation no longer exists.

When I was Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform I attended a number of events in the early part of this decade in Denmark, Holland and so on and saw at first hand how they got it so wrong, in terms of not developing diversity within their communities. It is interesting to note that it was not the people who arrive in those countries as immigrants who caused the problem. Rather, it was their sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters——

——who became ghettoised and totally removed from mainstream society, and therefore began to create all of the trouble that we have seen in Britain as well as in other European countries. I tried to address this. Instead of talking about segregation we put in place a very significant programme of integration. This Bill enables us to put that into practice in a very practical way. The VECs are the ideal way in which to ensure diversity in our education and, irrespective of who runs the school, that the wishes of the parents are the primary requirement in terms of what, if any, religion is taught in that school.

The way in which schools throughout the country have reacted to the influx of a multi-national and multi-regional community deserves great credit. We should be proud of the way in which the teachers and the principals who have had this massive influx of children from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds were able to assimilate these children into their schools. They deserve the appreciation and thanks of this House for the seamless way in which they have succeeded to do this. We are fortunate that children right across the spectrum are being integrated in our schools and that it is a good news story in terms of the absence of racism. I am not saying racism does not exist; it does. However, the position is much better than that which pertains in some of our neighbouring European countries.

There are a number of schools in Galway, such as the Claddagh national school and Mervue national school, where there could be 12 or 15 different nationalities. One can sense the atmosphere as one walks into those schools and there is no such thing as children being racist or children not from Ireland feeling in any way inferior to the rest. Great credit is due to those who run those schools for the way in which they enabled those children to integrate.

One of the most difficult issues with which I have had to deal — Deputy Michael D. Higgins has encountered the same situation and we have discussed it — is where a son or daughter of asylum seekers has integrated in the school system and other children and their parents want to know why the State must send them home. It has been heart breaking for me to have to say, unfortunately, I cannot do anything to keep this family in Galway. I understand the reason they must go home but when it comes to the point where the children are saying they do not want such children to go back to Africa, it is proof of the success of our teachers, principals and boards of management. We should acknowledge that in this House this evening and extend our thanks to them.

Another point I want to make relates to the multi-belief programme, which has been working under the title, "Goodness me, Goodness you", and is designed to cater for children of all beliefs and none, with content appropriate for both their theist and non-theist perspectives — maybe somebody would explain to me what that means. 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. That is an excellent provision, which has been researched for some time and which, I understand, has been very successful. The most important and fundamental point here is that, as that statement says, we can have children in our schools with all beliefs and none, they can be catered for whatever their religion and they can integrate, and that the teaching of religion to different religious groups within the school is a seamless exercise. The existing patronage, under the Catholic church, has worked well in that respect. The new patronage, under the VECs, is welcome. No doubt the patronage of Educate Together has been outstanding.

We all agree that the standard of Educate Together schools is as high as one can get and the way in which parents have contributed in no small way to the ethos of those schools has meant there is a huge motivation for the absolute highest standards to be achieved. I can speak only from my knowledge of a number of Educate Together schools in Galway. They have the highest standard that one can find in terms of the education they provide and the ethos that is intrinsic in the Educate Together model, where diversity is a first principle and where religious beliefs are accommodated irrespective of what they are.

I commend the Tánaiste on the introduction of this legislation. I welcome the way in which the board of management structure is set up. I was the chairman of the board of management of a new community school in Gort when I was a Member of the Seanad. I had been Minister of State in the Department of Education prior to then and it was interesting for me to go back and become chairman of a board of management.

The critical success of the board of management system of community schools and community colleges was the representation of the community. In that respect, it is most democratic that there are two direct nominees of the patron, two teacher representatives, two parent representatives and two community representatives and it certainly gives all of those interests adequate power to influence the decision-making and the direction of the school.

On the concerns that have been expressed on religious education being delivered in community national schools, the availability of religious education for all faiths and none during the school day is a central tenet of the community national school and it is a distinguishing feature of the new schools. However, there has been a view expressed in the media that this new CNS model of patronage should not involve itself in the provision of faith-specific teaching during the school day. The policy on religious education in these schools is as agreed by the Government. In approving the development of an additional model of primary school patronage, the Government's intention was to provide an option for those who continued to seek for their children the option of faith-specific teaching during the school day. In line with the practice throughout the wider primary school system, the patron in the community national school is responsible for providing religious education as part of the school curriculum in keeping with the characteristic spirit and ethos of the school. That makes great common sense. It is the central point in this debate. It has been working well in practice, as I have just stated, and long may it continue that we should lead the way in Europe in terms of integration of the multi-cultural multi-national community. If we can succeed in teaching our children to have respect for each other's culture, education and religion, we will have no problem in the future.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the debate this evening on the future direction of patronage of our primary schools.

The increased demand for different types of primary schools reflects the profound changes that have occurred in our society in the past decade. These changes have been in terms of both demographics and beliefs. In the past decade we experienced a huge migration of people from various societal backgrounds into the country and escalating birth rates. At present, we are experiencing the highest birth rates in almost 30 years. We have also seen the number of persons defining themselves as Catholic decline while there has been an increase in those of other faiths and those who are classified as having no religion. These societal changes invariably impact on the demand for, and the nature of, the schooling we provide.

Last month, I attended a family day organised by the Portobello Educate Together start-up group, which has been in contact with me, and my colleagues Deputy Ruairí Quinn and Senator Ivana Bacik, since its foundation in January. It is concerned about the lack of multi-denominational school places for children in the areas of Dublin 2, 6, 8 and 12. The group has been running a campaign for a long time on this and it is clear there is a huge demand for provision for this cohort. The parents want their children to receive primary school education in an environment that provides for each of the major faith communities attending the school, rather than the traditional model of denominational schools. There is an enormous demand for multi-denominational places in my constituency of Dublin South-Central and in the constituency of Dublin South-East, and given the demographic changes in the area and rising birth rates, this demand is sure to increase even further.

Given the speed at which these changes are happening we need a new approach to cater for the wishes of parents about how their children are to be educated. Central to this has to be input from the parents. During the so-called "boom times", when our construction industry was producing 80,000 and 90,000 units a year, each August we had the annual blot on our copybook when distressed parents in the fast-growing commuter towns and beyond took to the airwaves to highlight the shortage of school places for their children. The main issue these parents faced was getting their children into any school, which invariably consisted, unfortunately, of prefabs, and concerns about the ethos of the school were often far from their minds at the time.

This situation arose out of a culture of development that failed to provide for the basic needs of an area, much less take account of the wishes of the people who were going to make the place a community. Into this vacuum stepped groups such as Educate Together and great credit must be given to them for this work. It is deeply unfortunate that when we had the money to do this, the Government failed to adequately provide the necessary school buildings; now, while our construction industry is on the floor and the State coffers are bare it is hard to see how this demand will be met, but it has to be met. The urgency is there to facilitate the many parents in the community I mentioned who collectively have made a very strong case for the provision of a multi-denominational school to cater for the educational needs of their children.

One proposal by the Portobello Educate Together group and others is to allow for the transfer of patronage of existing schools to multi-denominational, non-denominational or inter-denominational management. This approach could be facilitated by the existing patrons as a means to take account of the changing nature of an area and to provide schooling in accordance with the parents' wishes. The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Diarmuid Martin, has suggested that in some areas the Catholic Church may be over-represented as it may have a disproportionate number of schools in areas where there have been significant cultural and religious changes. This point of view from the archbishop is very welcome, heralding an open and progressive attitude towards educational facilities for the children of this country.

The aim of this legislation is to provide for direct State involvement in the establishment of primary schools and the framework by which VECs become patrons of primary schools. In 2007, Deputy Mary Hanafin, as the then Minister for Education and Science, announced plans to devise a new model of community national school that would be designed to cater for the diversity of beliefs in an area served by a primary school. Since that announcement, the Labour Party and others have called for a national forum to discuss a vision for primary school patronage. This was done in order to call attention to the issues around the role of the 19th century patronage system in a 21st century society, as well as to debate the diversification of patronage of schools.

In the existing system of primary school patronage, the patron is generally a representative of a religious faith and the ethos of the patron is taught in the school. In the case of Catholic or Church of Ireland schools, bishops are the patrons in a diocese with the local priest or rector carrying out the functions on behalf of the bishop. The patron of multi-denominational schools is usually a board of trustees. This system exists even though almost all schools depend on the State for the bulk of their funding and are governed by State rules and regulations. The patron may manage the school personally or appoint a board of management to act as manager. The patron retains powers over two appointments to the boards, as well as the appointment of a chairperson and also over the approval of the appointment of teachers. While these powers are generally exercised in the best interests of the school and its students, it maintains religious control over education in an area, even when demographic and other societal changes take place and all the indicators are that there should be a review of the existing provisions to cater for a new ethos or culture.

The role of the principal of a school should also be reformed with regard to control of a school. Boards of management should devolve more autonomy and responsibility to the school principal in the management and operation of a school. School principals are the people with the most knowledge of, and ability relating to, the running of a school and they should be given a great say in the operation of the school. In practice, it is also the case that school principals have a major role to play in the direction of the school and delivery of the education programme. However, this role and responsibility should be acknowledged in real terms in legislation.

Similarly the changes to school ethos must also apply to teachers and the changed beliefs of our teachers should also be taken into consideration. The Labour Party has proposed a freedom of conscience provision for students and teachers in our State-financed teacher training colleges. It is simply unfair for our teachers, who are paid through public funds, to feel they have to deny or misrepresent their beliefs to comply with a school ethos.

What was proposed by the Labour Party and a number of other parties on a national forum on patronage with all stakeholders is now required to provide a wider range of choice in the ethos of primary schools. There are divergent views of how we should proceed as a society with regard to schooling. For instance, the route we are progressing towards here is similar to that experienced in other countries where the availability of choice based on religious beliefs or lack thereof is the guiding principle behind school provision and management. Questions about the desirability of this approach should be discussed with regard to the potential effects in terms of social cohesion of educating all our children separately according to the beliefs of their parents. This has been mentioned by a number of speakers.

We are moving from a time when society was relatively homogenous into a time of great diversity and stratification. However, this must take place as part of a broader discussion about the nature of our education policies and the changes in society. We live in a very different environment and culture than that which existed even ten years ago, and we must adapt to this changed society by maintaining the best aspects of our education system while taking account of the new realities that are impacting on our society.

An issue raised previously is with regard to insurance in schools and the availability of school facilities to the wider community. To a great extent, this is a red herring and it has to be grasped. We are now in a time when facilities are at a premium and capital investment is unlikely to take place in the foreseeable future. Why is it that a good capital project already up and running, by way of a gym hall in a school, cannot be used by the wider community without a huge fuss about insurance? This is not a real issue; it is put there as an artificial barrier to people using the facility. It is time for the Department of Education and Skills to take this on, address it and ensure that such facilities are made available to all of the people in the wider community. I am addressing this issue from the point of view of sporting facilities being available to a community. There is great demand for sporting facilities in areas where there exists in a school a very good facility that could be made far more widely available to the community.

I find that in the current climate, and we will have to consider this for the future, there is no justification for having in this legislation a reference to untrained or unqualified teachers. Given the current climate, and the number of primary school teachers in particular whom I know personally who do not have full-time jobs or even part-time jobs and who are on panels and dependent on an hour here and there, for all types of reasons they are the people who should be given first bite of the cherry. If it is a choice between untrained teachers and the availability of new teachers just out of college then surely the decision has to be in favour of the young teachers coming on board. The Bill uses the phrase, "in so far as possible". How does one define "in so far as possible"? It is just an excuse to allow this to continue and it should not be part of this legislation.

I am happy to share my time with Deputy Michael Ahern. I hope I will be forgiven if I preface my remarks by paying tribute to Deputy Mary Upton. I was shocked, as many were, to hear of her plans to retire.

It is voluntary.

I have known her family for many years and I am from Crumlin which she skilfully represents. I have not had the opportunity to wish her well. Some of us may be retired in a more forceful manner but she has done it on her own terms and I wish her well. I hope she does not get into trouble by my saying that.

The Education (Amendment) Bill 2010 provides for direct State involvement in the establishment of primary schools and provides the framework by which VECs become patrons of primary schools. The Bill provides for the dissolution of the educational disadvantage committee and for the provision of the employment of unregistered teachers under specific conditions.

I repeat I am sharing my time equally with Deputy Michael Ahern.

He is not from Tallaght.

No, but I am from near Tallow.

I hate to say this but I am not from Tallaght either; I am from around here but I have been in Tallaght for many years.

What is the name of that place again?

I would not be a Dáil Deputy today had I not moved to Tallaght for a job 40 years ago and I am proud of that fact.

As regards this legislation, I cut my political teeth in the education sphere. I was given an opportunity by the then parish priest of St. Mark's, Dr. Richard Sherry, who is now in retirement in Donnybrook, when he appointed me to the local school board. Arising from that interest, I was appointed to the County Dublin VEC in 1985. This was a very important period in Tallaght and the region, and I always respected and applauded the importance of the vocational education committee. It gave me and many other colleagues from all parties the opportunity to work with school principals and school communities and I was involved with many boards. I sometimes regret that the VEC in County Dublin has moved off and a different view has been taken with regard to representation on boards, which may be fair enough. It was, however, an important time in my community and in many other communities for the development of school services. The VEC played a key role in that regard.

The proposals in this Bill are reasonable in respect of County Dublin VEC and they include the involvement of Dún Laoghaire VEC. I do not know the views from Dún Laoghaire but I would hope that County Dublin VEC as we know it, and taking account of the needs of the Dún Laoghaire area, will still be the organisation I have known over the past 30 years. I do not wish to be parochial but I would hope the headquarters will remain in Tallaght. I am sure if Deputy Quinn is in government he will ensure this will be the case.

I support the view expressed by a number of my colleagues, including a former Minister, Deputy Mary O'Rourke, who raised this question about unregistered teachers. This issue is receiving a lot of attention and I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Haughey, is aware of the issue. One has to be sensitive at a time when anyone involved in education is clearly in need of employment. The point has been made to me by teacher representatives and by others involved in community education that the question of trained teachers should be an important part of Government policy. The point has been made that other untrained persons could find employment in our school system, including supervision. There is a case to be made for trained teachers who have gone through training college and they need employment. Other colleagues have made this point and I suspect the Minister will consider it carefully.

Valid points have been made in the debates on this legislation in the Upper House and here in the Dáil. Like myself, my colleague, Senator Ann Ormonde was a member of County Dublin VEC for a number of years. During the Seanad debate she made the point about the worth of the work of the VEC. The current chairman of County Dublin VEC is Labour Party councillor, Ken Farrell, who is an old friend of mine. He was in Tallaght this morning for the opening of the Brookfield youth and community centre. It is important to speak up for the VEC even though there are views about duplication of services and funding mechanisms. I am a strong supporter of the VEC, not only because I was a member for a number of years but also because I know the work it has done.

My region has a number of community colleges. All the schools in the Tallaght region are doing an excellent job. I refer to the community colleges in Firhouse, Willington and St. Macdara's and the Mount Seskin community college in Jobstown. They do a great job and they reach out to the community in a positive way. I had the opportunity and the privilege to be the founder chairman of Jobstown community college in 1986. Those Deputies who are familiar with Tallaght will know that Jobstown is a challenging area. I will not say which Fianna Fáil Minister it was but Deputies can guess to whom I am referring. This man was of the view that the building programme for that college in Jobstown would not proceed but a strong local fight was put up and the success can now be seen in that college. A number of its students are coming in to see all the local Deputies next week. It is important to acknowledge what the VECs have done in many communities. Other speakers have listed the names of all the schools in their areas. If the Acting Chairman wishes, I can name every Tallaght street.

Deputies will be parochial when speaking in any debate on education and will raise issues of concern to them. Deputy Quinn and I shared some Dáil business a few weeks ago on staffing levels and the difficulties at St. Joseph's special school in Balrothery in Tallaght. I know the school appreciates the support. Every school has an issue, a demand and a challenge. We should be brave enough to speak up for schools in our areas which have particular difficulties and challenges. A special school in any community falls into that category.

The newly established VEC should also take account of the developing needs of educational facilities. House building has stalled in my constituency but there are still gaps in education. In Tallaght west and the new City West estates and over the far side to Firhouse, to Ballycullen, there are gaps in educational facilities. I have raised those issues on a number of recent occasions. Educate Together in Tallaght is running a campaign and there is a need for permanent facilities in Holy Rosary school in Ballycra and in Scoil Chaitlín Maude in Knockmore. I hope I will be forgiven if I mention those issues in the context of this Bill.

I hope the Tánaiste will have an opportunity to listen to many of the points which have been made from all sides of the House. I hope she gets it right as it is important for the future of education in all our constituencies that she would do so. I hope she takes account of the concerns which are being expressed with regard to untrained teachers.

Over the past ten years or so, there has been an increase in our population as a result of immigration which has brought significant changes in the ethnic, cultural, religious and language aspects of our society. These changes have had an impact not only on society in general but particularly on education, more so to date at primary level than at the other levels. Also in that period, different structures of patronage in primary schools arose, moving away from the traditional model which had its foundations in the establishment of the national school system in 1831 and under which the patron was the Catholic bishop, Protestant bishop or the head of a religious organisation. Now, with non-denominational and multi-denominational schools, new patronage structures have developed where, for example, the patron is usually a board of trustees, as in the case of Educate Together. Gaelscoileanna may be under the patronage of church authorities but may also opt to be under the patronage of Foras Pátrúnachta na Scoileanna Lán-Ghaeilge Teo, which is a limited company set up for this purpose.

The changes due to population increase and diversity, allied to the indication by the Catholic Church regarding the possible divesting of patronage of some of its schools, and the problems experienced in getting patrons for new primary schools in some areas, place the onus on the Department of Education and Skills to establish a new model for school patronage. In 2007, the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin, outlined a new State model under the VEC. As the Tánaiste, Deputy Mary Coughlan, noted in her speech, the new patronage model is currently being piloted in five locations in counties Dublin, Meath and Kildare. The experience to date indicates that the pilot schools are successfully addressing the changing demands and expectations of the society in which we now live, and the feedback from the key stakeholders, namely, the pupils, their parents, the teachers and school management, is, as the Tánaiste stated, overwhelmingly positive.

Some have raised the concern that the ethos that exists in the majority of the schools in the country would be radically changed by the VECs taking over primary schools. I do not believe they have any real need for concern. The VECs have been in operation at secondary school level for many years and they have not destroyed the faith, ethos or beliefs of the people who went to school there.

The question of the ownership and control of schools was raised. The Bill sets out that the board of management of a VEC or primary school will be a body corporate with perpetual succession and power to sue and may be sued in its corporate name. The board of management of a VEC-run primary school will not be a sub-committee of a VEC. It shall keep proper accounts and records of expenditure, and ensure the accounts are audited or certified in accordance with best accounting practice. An appeal against a decision of a board of management of a VEC-run school will not be heard by the VEC and thereafter by the Secretary General but will follow the appeal structure of other primary schools.

The INTO is favourable towards the decision of the Minister and argues that this approach reflects the diversity of modern Ireland by accommodating all school pupils in one school. The Irish Vocational Education Association argues the new school model can accommodate the provision of separate religious education to those of different faiths and no faith within the school curriculum. Professor Tom Collins, head of education at NUI Maynooth, is supportive of managing diversity in schools by promoting an intercultural approach. I spent a number of years teaching in the West Indies where there were many Catholics, Protestants, Hindus and Muslims in the same school. Their mixing from a young age meant they grew up knowing each other as normal human beings, and the fact they were of different religions did not mean they were any better or worse than the others. It was very positive for society in the long term to have young people going to school and playing sport together from a young age.

An area that is raising hackles is the question of the registration of employment of non-registered teachers. Under section 30 of the 2001 Act, there was an express prohibition of payment of non-registered teachers from State funds but that section was never enacted. Section 12 of the Bill introduces an amended section 30 of the Act, which generally requires that all teachers be registered but also allows for the employment of non-registered teachers in specific limited circumstances, as the Tánaiste made clear in her speech. To safeguard the standards and quality of education in Irish schools, it is the Government's policy that, in so far as possible, all persons employed as teachers in a recognised school are registered teachers, but it allows for exceptions where there is a need to facilitate the urgent, temporary or occasional staffing needs of schools, the desirability of minimising disruption to the education of students and consideration of the qualifications and, if any, the teaching experience of an unregistered teacher.

Regulations will also be introduced to allow unregistered teachers to teach and these are listed in the following manner: "An unregistered teacher may only", "A school may", "The employment of each unregistered teacher may", "A time limit may", "Unregistered teachers may", and "An unregistered teacher may". When I read the word "may" so many times, I wonder whether this allows for a coach and four to be driven through what was intended.

I hope the Minister will consider making this area more definitive.

The Bill states that a teacher may be unregistered for a number of reasons. A constituent of mine has a Montessori diploma, a bachelor of theatre studies degree, a master's degree in drama and a postgraduate diploma in education and was registered by the Teaching Council. Due to the fact she had a baby, was out of work for a year and did not register during the year she was out, when she tried to go back to work, the Teaching Council decided she should not be registered again. If she had paid the €90 fee to register in the year she was out of work, she would have been able to continue. That is small-minded and against the principle of registration.

I wish to raise the thorny question of young qualified teachers coming out of training colleges and not finding permanent positions in the following years. They need to have the opportunity to gain experience in national schools. One often hears that the vacancies are offered to retired teachers, which there is evidence to support. It is wrong that young teachers should be denied the opportunity to get experience. While they are academically qualified, as in any other profession, they need the opportunity to get work experience. To have them locked out of opportunities is not morally correct. I request the management of schools throughout the country to ensure their first port of call is young qualified teachers who need jobs and experience.

In general, I welcome the Bill. I hope the Minister will take note of queries that have been raised from both sides of the House to improve it. The enactment of the Bill will progress the education system.

I begin with a word of thanks to the religious orders which provided top class education over many generations. It is appropriate that their service be recognised. It was a service and a vocation for many.

Unfortunately for the good ones, a small number of bad ones sullied their reputation.

Given that 92% of primary schools have bishops as patrons, dioceses continue to maintain a strong grip on primary education in this country. At the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, it is time we moved education provision away from the religious and towards the State. I am not satisfied with the structures of boards of management at primary level. The fact that two staff members who are in the employ of the patron and two representatives of the patron, one of whom is the chairperson, comprise one half of the eight members of a board ensures that the religious retain control. That is no longer acceptable.

Many first class people sit on boards of management in the interest of their children's education. However, these people are not invited to participate in interview panels for the hiring and firing of teachers. As a former chair of County Wexford VEC, I have form in this area and I clearly recognise the benefits to be gained from people who are willing to participate. Thankfully, I was never involved in the firing of a teacher. It is not easy to hire staff and the community as a whole should have a greater input into hiring decisions rather than leaving it in the hands of religious orders. Particularly in our current economic circumstances, parents want to give their children an education so they can achieve more than previous generations. While I would not go as far as to describe parents as aggressive, they are certainly less docile with patrons or boards of management than they were in the past. We should use their strengths to good effect.

One of the best examples I can offer of proactive parents involves the national school in a little place called Ballythomas, in which my father — a former Member of this House — and I were educated and which my children are currently attending. The school was housed in the old standard 1900 building, with walls two feet thick. The community had the choice of either using a funding provision of €120,000 to construct two additional classrooms or using the money to build an entirely new school. It was decided to build a new school with four classrooms and an area 5,500 sq. ft. I wish to take this opportunity to thank the parents of the community for their outstanding efforts in raising almost €200,000 out of a total building cost of €480,000.

The Bill before us will allow VECs to become patrons at primary level, which is to be welcomed as a step in the right direction. Equally, however, we need to be careful because, while VECs have been providing secondary education for decades, they do not have expertise in primary education. We must provide them with the expertise and knowledge they need to ensure a smooth transfer of patronage. Furthermore, we must avoid replacing the religious structure with another closed shop. I acknowledge that local authority members and staff representatives are included on the boards of VECs but we must tap into the pool of eager and willing parents. Educate Together has been very successful in including parents on boards of management.

Although I have cautioned against overlapping services on many occasions, I hope that the merger of VECs in my area of Wexford and Wicklow results in a cohesive structure. Having participated in the development of Fine Gael's policy on county committees for education, I think we should consider such a structure for primary as well as secondary education. The current structure sets one school against another and every Deputy has been lobbied by boards of management. Nobody knows why one school is on a list when another is left out. A county structure would allow us to decide how to prioritise schools based on their facilities and needs. This would assist public representatives in making representations to their local bodies when something is untoward or unreasonable instead of forcing them to go in different directions. When Deputy Brian Hayes visited the biggest school in the country, Gorey Community School, of which I am a former board member, I advised him that we should develop these structures in order to provide clarity on funding for school buildings and extensions.

Fine Gael and the Labour Party have each developed policies on Educate Together patronage at the post-primary level. I give Educate Together my full support as a patron of secondary schools and I ask why this Bill is not being used to advance its cause.

It is not necessary.

I realise that but we were told previously that legislation would be required. This Bill is the perfect vehicle for progressing the Educate Together patronage model because it will not flounder in the House for years. In my home town of Gorey, there is competition for patronage of a new post-primary school. I did not realise until I met representatives of Educate Together that I signed the application for County Wexford VEC to become the patron of the second post-primary school in Gorey. I had forgotten I signed it, in my then capacity as chairman of the VEC, until they reminded me of it. I support the VEC fully. I hope it will become the patron of the new school. Equally, I suggest that post-primary patronage by Educate Together, which is a larger question, should happen sooner rather than later.

I wish to reflect on an aspect of the post-primary education provided in Gorey Community School. Deputies might be aware that it is the largest school in the country. Its operation is a magnificent social experiment. I appreciate that it was not started with that in mind. Everybody in the Gorey area goes to the same school, regardless of social class or the primary school they attended. In my view, they all merge extremely well together. My criticism is that the school is so large that square pegs sometimes have to be put in round holes. There can be occasions when students fall through the cracks caused by the size of the school. That is why I am delighted that an announcement on the establishment of a second post-primary school will be made next week, if not before the end of this week.

When I attended my nephew's 18th birthday party in recent weeks — it had been a while since I attended such a party — I noticed a great mix and camaraderie among the students who were in attendance. It is probable that it did not exist in the past, when boys and girls attended separate schools. The system that was in place was almost one of apartheid. The social mix in the secondary school in Gorey is outstanding. I am pleased that the "good school, bad school" mentality which exists in many rural towns does not exist in Gorey. There is no perception that one social class should go to a certain school and another social class should go to a different school. It is a step in the right direction at this stage in our social development.

There can be no doubt that the ownership of schools, which has been mentioned, should be transferred directly to the State. The Department of Education and Skills pays all the wages. In our case, it provided the vast majority of the funding for the development of our premises. In the vast majority of schools, the State provides the money. The transfer should be clean and immediate. I would like it to happen sooner rather than later.

I am not too pleased about the transfer of authority over speech and language services from the Department of Education and Skills to the HSE. I assume, knowing the way things are done in this country, there has been no geographical analysis of the services that are available on a county by county basis. I am familiar with what is happening in the HSE and the legacy of speech and language services in County Wexford. We are a long way behind the other counties in the south-east region. The local health board was traditionally based in Kilkenny, which has a much bigger number of staff providing speech and language services than Wexford. The regional hospital is located in Waterford, which also has many more services than Wexford. The reason in both cases relates to legacy issues.

When one questions what will happen in the speech and language area, one is not given an answer. If the entire speech and language regime is to be transferred from the Department to the HSE, I will go along with it as long as a full assessment is produced to show it will lead to a level playing field for students. If these services are to be retained as they are currently constituted, however, I will not go along with it. The legacy of the existing system is that children in my local area do not get the speech and language services they require on a par with children in other counties. When one asks questions about the shortcomings in the system, one does not receive any answers, other than to be told "that is the way it is" or "that is the legacy", which is not acceptable.

I would like to speak about the employment of unqualified teaching personnel. I fully support the proposal that priority should be given to teachers who are not in employment, as opposed to teachers who have retired, when teaching opportunities arise. I hate the use of the term "who are unemployed", as it is better to say "who are not in employment". Hundreds of positions are being filled by retired teachers at present. I accept it can be difficult for school managers to ensure a teacher is available at short notice, for example, if a member of staff is sick. Boards of management and VECs should make a genuine effort to ensure such positions are offered to teachers who are looking for employment. The Minister said yesterday that the Department has sent a circular letter to that effect to schools. Retired teachers who received lump sum payments at the end of their teaching careers, and are now claiming pensions, should not be offered these positions.

Having said that, we should be careful not to box everything into pigeon holes. I would like to qualify that. If an experienced or retired teacher is required to deal with a student with particular learning or educational disabilities, it is important that we allow such a teacher to be brought into a school. That is the exception — it is not the rule. We need to ensure it is underpinned by legislation.

I have spoken about speech and language services. As somebody who is familiar with such services, I ask the Minister and the Department to scrutinise closely what is available. These services have not been provided to a member of my family, unfortunately. I have also spoken about the patronage issue.

It is unfortunate that practically all students in some areas come from an immigrant background. Ireland is good assimilating people well. The ghettoisation of children through the school system should not be happening at all, but that is what has happened, in effect. I have a real difficulty with it. I am annoyed by it because a child does not know he or she is from an immigrant background until he or she is shoved into a particular area and told he or she has a different ethnicity from most of society. Pupils who attend schools that accept children from many ethnic backgrounds are assimilated very well. As I said earlier, parents have no choice in places like Gorey where there is just one school. They do not have the luxury of sending their children to the local good school rather than the local bad school.

I hope my views on the establishment of county education committees are considered. It would be a positive development to put in place a body to liaise between various interests in each county when educational and other disadvantages, such as problems with speech and language services, arise in the locality. Such a structure would allow all parties in the county to speak with a unified voice when the Department needs to be contacted. We need to ensure action is taken in areas that are disadvantaged for various reasons — there may be legacy issues or a failure to fill positions, for example.

I welcome this Bill, which would represent a perfect vehicle for legislative underpinning of the decision to allow Educate Together to become a post-primary patron. I have been told that such legislative underpinning is not required, but it would be better in the greater scheme of things if it were done. Similarly, I welcome the decision to allow the VECs to become primary school patrons.

The Bill before the House will pave the way for VEC involvement in primary education, thereby creating a welcome community national school model. As someone who lives in the fastest growing area in the country, where we seem to spend all our lives being involved in the building of new schools, I am particularly interested in such a model. We were quite shocked in our parish when the bishop advised us that he would not be involved in the patronage of the next primary school, as he believed that the management of four primary schools in our parish was sufficient and if a fifth primary school was required, the patron should come from elsewhere. At the time we wondered where it would go from there as we were conscious of the great work done by the Catholic Church in the management of our schools and that the Catholic Church manages 90% of the primary school sector. We were also conscious that the State did not have an alternative system of school patronage of its own, although we were aware of the pilot scheme that had commenced in the Dublin area and that, some day, it would be necessary to bring forward the legislation to underpin this community national school model. This is the legislation we are debating.

Five schools operating under the pilot community national school model in counties Dublin, Meath and Kildare have opened in the past few years and it is also important that these schools are underpinned by legislation. I commend the Minister and the Department of Education and Skills for bringing forward the Bill, as it is necessary to address the issue where the current system could not require a patron to establish a school and where there was no mechanism for the establishment of a school if there was demand for it in a particular location.

The existing system supports the establishment of many schools by An Foras Pátrúnachta, Educate Together and others. The Educate Together movement has established 58 schools and 138 gaelscoileanna under Foras Pátrúnachta are also in place throughout the country. It is essential this new community national school model complements other models rather than replaces them. The VEC has proved itself to be hugely successful at secondary level and, as a result, there is no reason for the State not to become involved at primary level.

The Bill also provides that boards of management of schools under the new patronage model will operate in the same way as those in primary schools generally rather than under the governance model used in post-primary VEC schools. The board of management of a school established under this legislation will not be a sub-committee of a VEC, as is the case for post-primary VEC schools. Most important, this means that teaching and non-teaching staff will be employed by the board of management in the same way as other primary schools and the board will receive capitation and other funding directly from the Department. I am relieved about this, as I am not sure about the existing system at post-primary level where teachers move from one school to another within the scheme. Perhaps the Minister might clarify in her response that this will not apply at primary school level. In other words, as I understand it from the Minister's explanation, staff at primary school level in the community national school model will be employed directly by the board of management and, therefore, the movement of teachers between schools that applies at post-primary level within the system will not apply at primary level in the new community national school model.

I also want to raise the issue of gaelscoileanna. While I am delighted with the new community national school model, I continue to have the same concern I had last May during the debate in the House regarding patronage when I expressed concern that no new gaelscoil had opened in the past three years. We have to address this issue. I referred earlier to the decision by the Catholic Church not to be a patron of the fifth school in my parish if it was required. At the time, based on the pupil-teacher ratio of 25:1, it appeared that a fifth school might be required. The view locally following the bishop's decision was that the provision of a gaelscoil would be a good option should the demographic need require a fifth school. In the meantime, the pupil-teacher ratio changed to 28:1 and the existing eight junior infant classes were able to take three extra pupils each catering or an additional 24 five-year olds, thus meaning that the existing schools could cater for the five-year olds presenting for education.

However, a gaelscoil had commenced without recognition and nine pupils attended the new school. The Department advises that it is not possible to give recognition to this school while there are vacant places in the existing schools. In the current financial climate, it is difficult to see the taxpayer providing a new school against the demographic need and I understand that. However, it is also understandable that the gaelscoil movement has concerns that no gaelscoil has been approved throughout the country over the past three years. Has there been an application for a gaelscoil during that time in any part of the country where there was a demographic need for a new school? The Minister and her Department are not militating against gaelscoileanna but it is important that this matter be clarified. The sense I have about this issue is that the Department does not oppose gaelscoileanna and its issue is the demographic need. If so, there is a need to clarify that no application for a gaelscoil has been made where there was a demographic need. I want to give the Department and the Minister an opportunity to demonstrate their bona fides on this issue. That is the concern of the gaelscoileanna movement because it has not received approval for a school over the past three years. While we continue to discuss the demographic need issue with its representatives locally, it needs to be clarified.

Last month, I tabled a parliamentary question in which I asked the Minister the reason Gaelscoil Rath Tó was initially denied recognition when the VEC was named as its patron, yet the newly opened primary school in Navan under the patronage of the same VEC has been granted full recognition. I was informed by her that while the initial application to establish Gaelscoil Rath Tó was submitted to the Department, the position was the VECs did not have the legal right to act as patron in the primary sector at the time. The community national school in Navan was established under the interim patronage of the Minister while this Bill was being prepared. She also pointed out that, while the Commission on School Accommodation is reviewing the procedures for the establishment of new primary schools, no new schools will be established unless needed for demographic growth reasons. Along with the review of the Commission on School Accommodation, the legislation before us is just one of several measures being progressed by the Government to cater for changes in our education system.

There have been numerous developments in recent years in widening the number of school patrons together with developments in areas of population growth such as the area I represent. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin indicated that the church was willing to release schools from its patronage where there is demand for such a change. It is important, as previous speakers said, that there is full consultation with the patron, the management of the school and staff before a decision is taken on handing over patronage from the Catholic Church. We must listen to the views of the communities involved and whether they feel there is a demand for a new patron and where demand exists, the legislation provides another option for such communities. I am fully supportive of the VEC model. The VEC has a proven track record following the two-year long pilot community national school model.

Over the past several years, it is apparent that this country's population has increased, particularly in my area, but, more important, it has also grown in diversity. This means we not only require more schools but also a different schooling system to coincide with this new, diverse and continually growing demographic. After the announcement that the bishop's patronage of many primary schools would come to an end, many of us were concerned about who would step in and continue the excellent path that the Catholic Church had forged in the primary school system.

Thankfully, we found a solution that has proven successful, yet, at the same time, represents a fresh approach to primary education. The VEC has made an important contribution to the education system at secondary level. The system is well placed to accommodate primary school students. One of the main reasons the VEC method is such an effective option for education is it reaches out to a variety of parents and students. It maintains the educational standards that the Catholic Church has set and, equally, it recognises the wishes of parents to have their children receive faith-based education as part of the curriculum. Since our population will most likely continue with its diversification process, the VEC is an excellent way to ensure that a majority of the population receives the education it both needs and desires.

The VEC is a willing patron to pick up where the Catholic Church left off but as a State model of education. The VEC is not attempting to replace any of the flourishing primary schools that have been established; rather it is attempting to work alongside those schools as a workable option for primary education.

Based on my experience in this area, I am delighted this legislation is going through the House at this time. I wish the VEC system every success with the new community national school model and I wish the Minister and the Department every success with its implementation.

The next speaker is Deputy Neville and I note he is entering the Chamber.

Tá sé ag teacht.

I was getting information on the Bill from the Oireachtas Library. I was informing myself on it in more detail as others have done.

I welcome this opportunity to speak on the Bill. My party welcomes the core objective of it. I have had more than 25 years' experience of the work of my local vocational education committee and its involvement in education in my county. I have nothing but the height of praise for the work it is doing, the VEC's commitment to education in our county and for the leadership of its CEO, Mr. Seán Burke. He has the height of respect and praise from people involved in the education area in the county. His heart is in the right place. He has a difficult job to do and he has an enormous commitment to this area. I met him here today, he having come here to lobby the Minister for Education and Skills to ensure services are improved in the Limerick constituency.

I welcome the further involvement of the vocational education committees in education and, in particular, this opportunity and movement towards being involved in primary education, which is so important for the future of our children. Basic education at primary level is important, as is second level, third level and further education, which encompasses the training area, but if one does not receive a basic primary education and the skills obtained at that level, the opportunity for one to progress to further education is severely limited. I will focus on this area later in the context of special needs education and the importance of it for young people who benefit greatly from the work done in that area.

The Fine Gael Party is concerned about the issue of untrained teachers involved in education. Education is an important issue and it is important that those who impart knowledge to our children and young people have the qualifications and skills required to do so. Would one allow a person who is not fully qualified as a doctor to operate as a doctor? I could go through all the professions in that respect. A farmer would not allow a person who is not fully qualified as a veterinary surgeon to diagnose an animal in his or her herd. There are some professions where this practice happens; it is not exclusive to the education area. I am concerned about other areas where this happens, especially in psychotherapy and counselling services in which many untrained people are involved. We were promised movement to address that but this is not the issue on which I am speaking. I am speaking about education and I want to ensure that those who impart knowledge to our children and young people are qualified.

The other side of that coin is that unemployed trained teachers are available to work and they have not had the opportunity to develop their skills. They have the required knowledge and a level of skills but obviously experience is important, as is the case in any position. In the period after I was first elected to this House two decades ago, I was on a learning curve. Everyone who moves to a new area of work is on a learning curve, regardless of his or her knowledge and qualifications. These young teachers are not getting the opportunity to obtain that level of skill.

Tens of thousands of qualified graduates who are registered with the Teaching Council cannot obtain positions at present. It is important for the future of our education system that those people remain in this country, that they feel they are welcome here and that they do not believe, as many do, that their only course to having a livelihood and engaging in their profession is to emigrate to where work is available abroad while at the same time unqualified teachers are practising here.

The Minister should respond on this issue. I understand that more than 300 unqualified personnel acted as teachers in classrooms last year. Qualified teachers pay €90 per year to the Teaching Council, a body put in place to advance the teaching profession. Members of it see teaching positions being taken up by people who are not qualified to be members of the Teaching Council. Many teachers resent having to pay this annual fee for recognition as a teacher when people with no qualifications can pick up work in schools. It undermines the teaching profession. It underlines Government policy on the advancement of education in making legal provision to pay people who are not qualified to work in this area.

I cannot accept that a school principal cannot find a qualified person to work in the school, even at short notice. While the Irish Primary Principals' Network have a texting operation, Deputy O'Dowd, our spokesperson on this area, made an important point in his contribution, namely, that there could be a database of teachers available to do temporary teaching, which could be accessed, and if there is not, it should be compiled. In other words, there would be such a database and a principal with a vacancy could look up the database to see who is available and would be able to obtain a contact number. It would be as simple as that. The Minister will find that teachers will travel to obtain experience to ensure they get that opportunity for the development of their careers. Some principals want a teacher living within a one, two or three mile radius of the school but all teachers who are qualified and who are not working should have an opportunity to take up those positions. The one question that is asked in every interview, regardless of the job, is what experience does the interviewee have. We have all seen young people going for jobs and the first question they are asked is what experience they have. They are out of college. There are unemployed people who have experience in many areas and most professions. They apply for the jobs and have the advantage over the graduates but those in the teaching professions should get an opportunity to obtain some experience through temporary work when it arises in whatever location. Some principals might say they would be flooded with applications but there are ways and means of reducing the number of applications. Having been involved in recruitment in a previous life, the procedure followed is that one draws up the criteria required to meet the specific conditions of one's school, examines the curricula vitae submitted, identifies the applicants who meet the criteria outlined and calls 15 or 20 of them for interview.

Having studied the area of special needs over the years, I have been able to observe the success of special needs assistants, speech and language therapy and so forth. Speech and language therapy has made an enormous difference to young children. Communications are key to the future development of young people. The first line of communication is one's language, voice and communications skills. I read recently about children who had been almost unable to communicate through language and following speech and language therapy were able to communicate, speak in sentences and articulate concepts.

While one cannot have equal opportunity for everybody because people have different qualities and skills, we should ensure that children have access to the best educational inputs available to enable them to take maximum advantage of life, subject to their individual limitations.

I am concerned that cutbacks in special needs provision will inhibit opportunities for many children. Some of those who are not afforded assistance and do not have an opportunity to fulfil their potential often have difficult lives subsequently. They may experience communication problems, difficulties in relationships or problems securing employment or may become frustrated with life. Unfortunately many of them fall through the net and become involved in anti-social behaviour.

On the topic of anti-social behaviour, I read recently that many of those who have difficulty in school express their needs through anti-social behaviour. The approach recommended was not Garda intervention but taking the young people in question aside and identifying and addressing their problems. The Garda must intervene in some cases and two or three anti-social behaviour orders, ASBOs, have been issued since they were introduced with great fanfare by the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr. Michael McDowell, who claimed they would solve the problem of anti-social behaviour.

That was untypical of the former Minister.

While I presume his heart was in the right place on the day in question, whatever about the days thereafter — he often used to change his mind — anti-social behaviour orders are reasonable in the case of certain individuals. However, the vast majority of young people engaged in this form of behaviour have special needs difficulties.

In recent years, schools have been developing inputs to assist young people with special needs at a crucial time in their education. The withdrawal and reduction of these supports will have serious consequences for the individuals in question in terms of life opportunities and for society because in some cases the anti-social behaviour will develop into criminal activity. Early intervention for children with special needs delivers a long-term return for the State, for example, in the penal area.

As the Minister of State will be aware, the debate about increasing what the Government describes as registration fees for third level education — they are registration fees in name only — has given rise to serious concerns. When third level fees were abolished in 1996 a student service charge of £150, equivalent to €190, was introduced. Over the years, this charge has had many different names but is colloquially referred to as the registration fee. The student service charge is, in the words of the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Mary Coughlan, designed to defray the costs of examinations, registration and student services. Clearly, this is not the case given that a significant proportion of the charge is devoted to purposes other than those outlined by the Minister.

In 2009-10, when the student service charge was increased by €600 from €900 to €1,500, the range of services it could be used to fund was expanded to include core academic functions such as library and information technology services. The charge has been increased every year since its introduction, apart from 2003-04 and 2010-11. However, it must be noted that the absence of an increase followed increases of 94% — from €396 to €670 — in 2002-03 and 69% — from €900 to €1,500 — in 2009-10.

Since its introduction the student service charge has increased 13 times, amounting to a 689% increase in 15 years. To compound matters there is no definition of what precisely a student service is and what services can be funded from the charge. The Comptroller and Auditor General, in his special report on resource management and performance in the university sector, found that the full economic costs of the services to which the service charges are linked cannot be readily identified from the financial statements of third level institutions in the current format.

At a meeting of the Joint Committee on Education and Science on 28 January 2010, it emerged that the accounts of Trinity College Dublin revealed that money from the student service charge was being used to fund the bio-resource unit, a centre for the preparation of animals for scientific testing and experimentation. During the same meeting, Mr. Tom Boland, chief executive officer of the Higher Education Authority, admitted that institutions were free to fund a wide range of activities from revenue generated by the student service charge. He stated: "There is no definition in the sense of what a student service is." It would be much more honest to change the name of the student service charge to "student fees" because that is precisely what they are. We should call a spade a spade. While the original purpose of the charge was to provide services for students, the charge has evolved into student fees.

The Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Coughlan, and her predecessor, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, continue to insist that the student service charge does not represent the total allocation towards student services from institutions' budgets. This probably is because the Government is diverting such funding away from student services. When the student service charge was increased to €670 in 2002, the colleges only pocketed approximately 6% of that increase and the remainder went towards the reduction of the core grant from the then Department of Education and Science. In other words, the student service charge went to defray and reduce funding from the central budget.

Moreover, the university presidents have gone on public record stating that when the student service charge increased, they used it to fund other activities. Professor John Hughes, President of NUI Maynooth, stated: "We agree with Deputy Hayes [of Fine Gael who had stated] that when the core grant has reduced on occasion, the student services charge has increased to offset the reductions in the core grant, but the universities have not been involved in [the] decision [to do so]." The former president of DCU agreed with this statement and stated: "It is a wholly unacceptable situation and the position students are in is terrible." As reductions in the core grant and increases in the student services charge take place, it is inevitable that one must consider how income from those two sources is being distributed. If one source is reduced while the other increases, redistribution will be necessary. It would be a lot more honest for the Tánaiste to acknowledge that student fees have been introduced, rather than calling it what it is not, namely, a student service charge.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the Education (Amendment) Bill 2010. The purpose of the Bill obviously is to provide some direct State involvement in primary schools. For the first time, a new model of patronage and the vocational education committees, VECs, will be the vehicle to establish, build, run and provide the patronage system for the schools concerned. Its second purpose is to abolish the educational disadvantage committee and its third purpose, which is the sting in the legislation's tail, is the proposed amendment of section 30 of the Teaching Council Act 2001 to allow for the statutory employment of unqualified, unregistered teachers.

Nevertheless, the main thrust of the Bill pertains to the proposed new patronage model. It would, for the first time, extend to the VECs the opportunity to engage on a statutory basis in providing patronage for primary schools. This would extend to eight the number of patrons that are involved in primary schools at present. In a way, this is unique because the vocational education committees are the exception in Irish education. While all education is funded by the State, the VECs are the only State bodies that have been established specifically for the delivery of education at second level. If one considers the development of the education system from the Stanley letter of the 19th century onwards, the patronage of primary education has been controlled by the Catholic and Protestant churches. Second level education has developed in a similar manner with secondary schools, diocesan schools and religious schools, as well as grammar schools on the Protestant side. Even third level education has developed along similar lines with the Catholic university of the NUI and with Trinity College on the Protestant side. Overall, Irish education has had a religiously-dominated patronage and governing system.

It was not until the enactment of the Vocational Education Act 1930 that for the first time, the new State became directly involved in education. Interestingly, at the foundation of the State, when establishing portfolios the first Dáil decided not to have a Department of Education at all. The founding fathers of the country decided in their wisdom, dare I say hardly in their republicanism, that there should be no Department of Education because that effectively was the remit of the churches. Churches had this responsibility and guarded jealously and carefully the remit that had been given to them in respect of education. The founding fathers of the State did not see fit to establish a Department of Education but established a Department of Irish instead. This was as far as they went in providing a Cabinet position. This was a rather bad start and it was not until 1930, when a serious gap in the education being provided became evident with regard to manual skills, trades and apprenticeships, that it was decided that the State itself could get involved in this area. The churches did not want it as it would not provide priests, brothers or schooling that was suitable for future leaders of the country. However, the working classes needed some training and, therefore, the Vocational Education Act was enacted and education was extended at a second level outside the remit of Catholic patronage.

For the first time, a democratic structure was established with local councillors and the VECs themselves to provide a system of education that was more trade and manually orientated than anything that had existed heretofore. This then developed in the context of the Dublin Institute of Technology and the regional colleges and now finds expression in the institutes of technology. The country had an alternative pathway of education, of which the churches neither sought nor insisted on the patronage. For example, the VECs have chaplains, rather then having parish priests, who are the chairmen of the boards of primary schools. It certainly has been something of a historical anomaly in respect of the provision of education. In a way, it is to be hoped the introduction of this legislation will bring the VECs into the daylight and into the mainstream of the provision and patronage of education. It is a model that may well move forward and expand in the years to come.

In addition, I have described how the system developed in an ad hoc fashion. Consequently, there are gaps all over the place and the current position must be considered. For example, in the primary sector the Catholic and Protestant churches find it extremely difficult to provide the patronage as they are too extended and have too few personnel coming on-stream. Moreover, there is a huge voluntary requirement in that respect. However, this is only happening because of the pressures that exist. It is not happening in an organised fashion or being planned and it is neither holistic nor comprehensive. The Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills should take on board the recommendations of the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, to have a patronage forum in respect of primary education. There now are eight separate patron bodies and without knowing exactly how matters will work out, we should look back before moving forward with another patron or another ad hoc solution. Instead we should carefully examine our current path while recognising that the old system that operated for the entirety of the 20th century will no longer function and that a new system is needed. Moreover, it should be recognised that a new system is required, rather than simply a new individual part to it. I advise the Tánaiste to respond in that fashion. I acknowledge there has not been a great response from the Tánaiste to date but perhaps——

We did have a patrons' forum in Kilmainham, which I attended along with the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin. We fulfilled one of Deputy Costello's demands.

There was a patrons' meeting.

No, it was a forum.

It was called a forum.

Debate adjourned.