Seanad amendments Nos. 1, 4 to 8, inclusive, and 11 are related and may be discussed together.
Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016: From the Seanad
Seanad amendments Nos. 2, 3, 9, 10 and 12 to 14, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together.
Seanad amendments Nos. 15 to 28, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together.
I acknowledge the amendments which have improved the version that the Minister put forward, on foot of our request that these provisions be inserted in the Bill to ensure that special classes can be formed in schools where there is an identified need. Senator Kelleher, together with my colleague, Senator Gallagher and others made significant amendments to change it slightly and improve it. I am delighted to have worked with Senator Kelleher and Graham Manning, a teacher in Cork who brought this matter to the attention of all political parties, to ensure this is in the Bill. This is a key priority for us and we are glad to see it in the Bill. We hope it will be matched with the resources to ensure that children are educated as they need to be in particular cases. A special class will not be suitable for everybody. Some people may need a special school; some may need education in a mainstream classroom. Some people, in certain areas, and particularly at second level, will need special classes. I appeal in particular to the voluntary secondary sector to come to the table in greater numbers than it has done to open special classes where there is an identified need in the relevant area. It cannot all be left to one particular sector. Children have a right to be educated in their local school, and in a particular ethos, insofar as they can, despite their special needs.
I acknowledge the contribution of Deputy Byrne and Senator Kelleher. The changes are small but significant in that they speed up the process through which a school could be required to open a special class and make it clearer that the Minister will act on recommendations that come forward. They also provide for a review not later than three years after this goes into operation so that we will be able to see whether it is working satisfactorily.
Seanad amendments Nos. 29 and 32 are related and can be discussed together.
Seanad amendments Nos. 30, 31 and 33 to 35, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together.
Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le gach páirtí sa Teach agus leis na heagraíochtaí Gaeilge agus Gaeltachta, go háirithe Conradh na Gaeilge agus Cearta Oideachais, a rinne sár-obair le chéile chun próiseas iontrála nua do lucht na Gaeilge, na Gaelscoileanna agus na Gaelcholáistí a chur le chéile. Measaim go bhfuil gach duine sásta leis an bpróiseas seo. Bhí go leor daoine buartha go raibh céimniú síos ar siúl maidir leis an nGaeilge agus na Gaelscoileanna. Cheap siad go mbeadh deacrachtaí le teaghlaigh le Gaeilge acu freastal ar Ghaelscoileanna áirithe. Measaim go bhfuil jab maith déanta. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Teachta Ó Cuív, a bhí i mbun idirbheartaíochta ar son Fhianna Fáil, agus leis an Aire. Níor aontaigh an Freasúra anseo sa Dáil leis an treo ina raibh an tAire ag dul, ach nuair a d'iarramar air gan dul ar aghaidh leis an gcur chuige a bhí i gceist aige maidir leis an gceist seo, d'fhreagair sé go dearfach agus d'oibrigh sé lena oifigigh chun leasú suntasach a chur chun cinn sa Seanad. Tá muidne sásta leis an leasú sin. Measaim go bhfuil an pobal go léir sásta. Is slí an-mhaith é sin chun an jab reachtaíochta a dhéanamh sa Dáil agus sa Seanad. Nuair a oibríonn gach duine le chéile - na hoifigigh a bhfuil saineolas acu ar nithe reachtúla san áireamh - is féidir linn an míniú agus an bhrí atá á lorg againn sa Dáil a scríobh isteach sa reachtaíocht. Tá sé sin tábhachtach. Measaim go bhfuil jab ceart agus cruinn déanta maidir leis na leasuithe seo. Tá muidne sásta. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire agus leis na Teachtaí ó gach páirtí a d'oibrigh le chéile ar an bpróiseas seo.
Cé nach raibh mé bainteach leis na díospóireachtaí ar an reachtaíocht seo laistigh den Dáil, sna coistí nó in aon áit eile, bhí idirbheartaíocht idir mé féin agus roinnt de na heagrais atá luaite ag an Teachta Byrne. Measaim go bhfuil an ceart aige go bhfuil dul chun cinn déanta. Measaim nach raibh sé riamh i gceist go mbeadh bac i gceist. Cheap pobal na Gaeilge go raibh seans ann go mbeadh bac i gceist maidir le coinníollacha iontrála sna Gaelscoileanna dá leanfaimid ar aghaidh leis an mbunfhoclaíocht a bhí ann. Tháinig muid ar fad le chéile chun iarracht a dhéanamh teacht ar fhoclaíocht a chinnteodh go mbeadh an reachtaíocht seo chun leasa na teanga agus go dtiocfadh borradh ar an nGaelscolaíocht. Measaim gur athrú maith é sa deireadh thiar thall. Tá súil agam go bhfuil athrú meoin le feiceáil laistigh den Roinn. Léiríonn an leasú seo gur féidir leis na heagrais agus na polaiteoirí ar fad suí síos agus teacht ar fhoclaíocht a shásaíonn gach éinne má bhíonn deis againn. Sa deireadh thiar thall, measaim go ndéanfaidh an fhoclaíocht seo an beart. Tá gá le hathrú bunúsach ar mheon na Roinne ó thaobh éileamh a chothú, seachas éileamh a shásamh. Ní dhéanann an Roinn an t-éileamh maidir le Gaelscoileanna a shásamh, san iomlán. Má tá an chéad réabhlóid eile atá ag teastáil ó thaobh an na nGaelscolaíochta le titim amach, ba cheart go mbeadh sé mar dhualgas ar an Stát - agus go háirithe ar an Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna - an t-éileamh sin a chothú.
Ba cheart don Roinn dul amach agus déanamh cinnte de go bhfuil seans ag tuismitheoirí éileamh a lorg. Faoi láthair, fanann an Roinn chun an t-éileamh atá ag teacht ó lasmuigh a mheas, rud a bhí deacair le tamall de bhlianta anuas. Tá sórt athrú ag teacht anois. Molaim an mhéid atá déanta ag daoine sa chás seo. Tá súil agam go n-éireoidh leis an meon atá taobh thiar den leasú seo amach anseo.
I thank Deputies on all sides for the work that has gone into this Bill. When we brought it forward on Report Stage, we had a series of amendments that were well intentioned, but there was a need to take more time to consider what would meet the issues we had sought to pursue. That opportunity was taken in the Seanad and we are now back with an amendment that I think has a broad basis of support. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure a Gaelscoil or a Gaelcholáiste can give priority to a pupil who has a level of fluency that is consistent with him or her using Irish in his or her normal non-educational context. That level of fluency, of which the pupil or the parent would have to provide evidence, sets a high bar. It is not intended that a person would be able go to a naíonraí for a year or to the Gaeltacht and be deemed to have priority access to a Gaelscoil. This will apply to someone who is genuinely using Irish as part of his or her normal life. The belief on all sides was that such a pupil should have priority access to a Gaelscoil in order that his or her level of Irish would not regress. That is what we have done. We had to take care to ensure it would be legally robust because some of the phraseology used earlier as the thinking was evolving did fall foul of some requirements of the Constitution. We have amended it in such a way that we are satisfied it is robust and technically sound.
Senator Robbie Gallagher had sought an assurance, which I gave to him, that when we were setting out the procedures for section 29 appeals, we would set out additional guidelines for how the provision should be interpreted. We intend it to be a high bar. The Senator and others, including Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, to whom I spoke outside the Chamber, wanted that assurance. We can give it through the procedures for section 29 appeals and the intention of the Oireachtas will be clearly conveyed.
I should mention that Seanad amendment No. 31 requires a small amendment to be agreed verbally. A new paragraph (h) was inserted. Because of that I have to name the next paragraph h(a). Amendment No. 31 made in the Seanad on Report Stage inserted a new paragraph (h) in section 62(7) of the Education Act which was inserted by section 9 of the Bill. That results in two paragraphs labelled as (h) in this section of the Act of 1998. Accordingly, I am requesting the Clerk of the Dáil to renumber the second paragraph (h) as paragraph h(a). This correction will have no effect on the wording or meaning of the text or provision, but it is necessary in order to avoid a numbering anomaly in the Bill. Amendment No. 31 provides that a Gaelcholáiste can give prior access to students of a Gaelscoil. This is already provided for in the case of feeder schools, but Senators wanted it to be written into the legislation and it was passed in the Upper House.
This is the amendment about which the Minister just spoke.
It was discussed with amendment No. 30.
May I make the renumbering amendment?
It is only a clerical correction.
It is agreed to.
Seanad amendments Nos. 36 to 39, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together.
These four amendments were all agreed to on Committee Stage in the Seanad. They are technical and proofing amendments to section 9 of the Bill.
Amendments Nos. 40 and 41 are related and may be discussed together.
These amendments were made in the Seanad where a request was made that, not later than five years after the section comes into operation, the Minister commence a review and make a report on the findings of the review to each House of the Oireachtas within 12 months of the expiration of that period. It was to be a review of the way we were implementing the removal of religion as a criterion in selection but leaving it open for minority religions in certain circumstances. Senator Lynn Ruane was anxious that the provision be reviewed after a period and I was happy to accede to her request.
I thank Deputies and Senators on all sides for their co-operation on the Bill. It has taken a long time to get it through, but the time taken has been well used in that we will succeed in getting to introduce new provisions that Deputies on all sides want to see. One deals with religion in the context of admissions policy. We now have a provision that has broad support. We have also introduced a provision such that not only can the NCSE ensure a child with special needs will be accommodated in a school but also that schools will open special needs units where needed. That was something many Deputies believed was a invaluable part of the Bill.
We have also succeeded in dealing with access to Gaelscoileanna. More widely, the Bill gives more certainty and provides for transparency and fairness in the way we administer admissions. It will make a significant contribution to the modernisation of the way we run schools. Everyone recognises that Ireland is changing rapidly and the system has to respond. Many of these issues will be revisited in the future. It is recognised on all sides that the situation is evolving, but this is an important contribution. Many people have put a lot of time and effort into the amendments and developing the Bill. I thank them and my own staff for the work that has gone into it.
I also pay tribute to all those involved in the passage of this legislation. In fact, my only complaint, to which the Minister did allude, is that it has taken so long to get it through. It has been knocking around for years. It is one year since the leader of my party offered it as one of five Bills that could be progressed quickly. I think we have got two of them through. Both were in the area of education, the Technological Universities Act and this Bill. I do not think either the Dáil or the Seanad can be faulted for the fact that it has taken a long time to get the Bill through. I do not know the reason it has taken so long. In fairness to the Minister, he has achieved consensus on the Bill and taken ideas from the Opposition such as the provision dealing with special classes.
He has also taken on board ideas on the Gaelscoileanna. A genuinely collaborative effort has been adopted to pass the best possible legislation.
I welcome all the Bill's provisions. I have spoken to people involved in Catholic schools, and it is clearly the case that those schools have no fear of this Bill. In fact, quite a few schools had moved away from a baptism barrier in recent years. The barrier was operating, but quite a few schools operating it had made it clear that a different approach was desired. Those schools will not now be able to operate a barrier, which is good news in some of the areas affected.
While it is great to pass legislation, the unrelenting focus must be on resources for our schools. We have to ensure they have the time, wherewithal and money to put some of the Bill's provision into practice. It involves drawing up a policy in each school, which is not expensive but which adds to the administrative hassle in schools. We must be conscious of that; I am always slow to legislate because of that consideration. The target of 400 new multi-denominational schools set by the Minister must be massively ramped up. It is one thing to remove the baptism barrier, but it must be remembered that people are entitled to education in an ethos other than Catholicism. One way of doing that is by honouring that commitment, which has been happening very slowly so far. It has to happen.
I again pay tribute to Mr. Graham Manning, who brought the issue of special classes to the fore. We were all aware of it, but he brought it to our attention, and an opportunity to bring in a legislative provision to deal with the issue was spotted in this Bill. Mr. Manning is an ordinary citizen who brought his concerns to his local representatives in Cork, who then forwarded them to the education spokespersons of the various parties in Dáil Éireann. He has managed to get the law changed. We took the issue up as a priority and told the Minister that we would not facilitate the Bill without it, even though there was reluctance at some levels within his Department to include this measure. In fairness to the Minister, he accepted it and worked collaboratively with us on that.
We do not want any delay on the commencement of the sections, which has become a feature of legislation in the past year or so. We will insist on that, and I do not believe the Minister will have any difficulty with that approach. We have worked well on this. It is a signal moment in Irish education, and represents a big change. Indeed, it will probably signal further change in terms of the ethos of schools in Ireland. There are other debates to be had, but I want the main focus to be on resources and on making sure that our schools are able to educate our students without being tied up in knots, rules and regulations.