Education (Disadvantage Committee) Bill 2017: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Education Act 1998 to make provision whereby the Minister for Education and Skills shall establish an Educational Disadvantage Committee to advise him or her on policies and strategies to be adopted to identify and correct educational disadvantage.

The purpose of this Bill is to re-instate the Educational Disadvantage Committee under the Education Act 1998. This committee was in office from 2003-06 and its purpose was to advise the Minister for Education and Skills of the policies and strategies to be adopted to identify and correct educational disadvantage. This committee was established on a statutory footing on a similar basis to the other bodies such as the National Council for Special Education and COGG, An Chomhairle um Oideachas Gaeltachta agus Gaelscolaíochta, with the functions of advising the Minister on policy initiatives for children with special educational needs and the provision of education through the medium of Irish respectively.

It is my understanding that the Educational Disadvantage Committee was quite effective in its work. It engaged significantly on the issue of educational disadvantage through the establishment of a forum on the issue, whereby stakeholders across the board came together and contributed significantly to the debate on educational disadvantage. The work of the committee fed directly into the establishment of the DEIS, Delivering Equality of Opportunities in Schools, scheme, which has had a huge impact in our schools in addressing educational disadvantage.

Unfortunately, after the three year period for the membership of the committee, no new appointees were made by the then Minister. The committee was allowed to lapse and the legislative provision for the establishment of the committee was repealed in 2012. It is my view that the committee represented significant value for money, costing in total €175,000 over the three years it was in office and its abolition was a mistake. As we know, consistent child poverty rates have risen from 6.3% in 2008 to 11.5% in 2015, according to figures from the European Anti-Poverty Network. We also know that the overall funding for DEIS has fallen by almost €20 million from €193 million in 2008 to €174 million in 2015 at a time when child poverty rates were increasing.

Unfortunately, we are also aware that particular policy decisions have had a disproportionate effect on disadvantaged children and have increased educational disadvantage, for example cuts to guidance counselling provision, cuts to the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance and cuts to educational services for Traveller children to name just a few. The fact that the Minister has identified at least 79 schools to be included in the DEIS scheme clearly shows that there is a significant level of educational disadvantage across our society.

Every Member is aware of schools in their constituencies which have applied to join the scheme and have not been successful. This suggests that educational disadvantage is more prevalent than current policy provides for. Particular groups such as asylum seekers, children in lone parent households, Traveller children and, in recent years and to our great shame, homeless children are at particular risk of educational disadvantage. Little research or policy advice has been provided to address this.

The re-establishment of this committee on a statutory footing would be a timely initiative. It would send out a clear message that this House takes the issue of educational disadvantage seriously and is determined to address it. The Bill, itself short, provides for a new insertion of section 32 into the Education Act 1998. It outlines the function and powers of the committee and provides for other related matters.

I commend this Bill to the House.

Is the Bill opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.