I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to be in a position to bring the Bill to the House. The Bill has been passed by the Seanad, where it received cross-party support. I believe this is important legislation as it seeks to provide a clear framework for schools in regard to engagement within their school communities and between home and school. As Members will be aware, a spirit of open communication and partnership is vital to the running of the school. At its very best, education extends well beyond the classroom and into the lives and homes of everyone within a school community, and this includes students, their families and, of course, staff.
For a school community to reach its full potential, it requires the support of everyone involved. I know from my experience that many parents and staff give freely of their time and support to ensure their school community is able to reach its fullest potential. One such experience is the wonderful tradition in Ireland of volunteer-led boards of management, which contribute so much to the quality of education. Communication and engagement must be at the heart of how a school is run. I know many schools do this well and have positive and open communication within their school community. Those schools can attest to the positive benefit of engagement with students, parents and staff for the entire school community.
This legislation will support all schools by providing a clear framework to guide them in establishing and implementing good practice. It will do so by amending the Education Act 1998. That Act sets out a clear framework for the operation and management of schools in Ireland. However, while the 1998 Act includes some provisions that can guide, aid and influence the relationship between a school and its staff, students and parents, it does not currently provide significant guidance as to how schools engage with staff, students and their parents on a proactive basis. While there are limited provisions within the Education Act as to communication with the parents and students, it is focused on creating procedures to process grievances or appeals once they have arisen. As important as this is, we must also take proactive measures to create a positive school environment. The approach being taken in this Bill is to shift away from concentrating on reacting to problems in schools after issues arise to an approach that aims to improve the day-to-day experience the school community can expect from schools. This will be done by setting out clearly a framework that schools will apply in their engagement with the school community.
Under this framework, every school will be required to prepare, publish and implement a school community charter. This charter must adhere to national charter guidelines developed and published by the Minister. The charter guidelines will be developed in consultation with the education partners, including those organisations representing students and their parents. The consultation process will be an important element in ensuring that the guidelines achieve their objective in a manner that is straightforward and effective for students, parents and school staff.
This Bill has 11 sections. Section 1 is a standard definitions section.
Section 2 is the largest as it inserts four new sections, namely, sections 27A to 27D, inclusive, into the Education Act 1998. I will outline these new sections in more detail. Section 27A provides that a school board of management must prepare, publish and implement a charter in accordance with the Minister's charter guidelines. In preparing its charter, the board must consult with the patron, school principal, school staff, students, parents, the student council and the parents' association, and must prepare the charter in accordance with the charter guidelines. Each school charter must affirm that the charter has been prepared by the board in accordance and compliance with the charter guidelines. Section 27A prohibits a school board from including content in its charter that is not in accordance with, or provided for by, the charter guidelines. It also provides that the board must review and amend its charter as provided for by the charter guidelines.
Section 27B requires the Minister to develop and put in place national charter guidelines. The guidelines must address, inter alia, the following: the content of school charters; the process by which a school board will prepare, publish and implement its charter, including procedures for consultation with stakeholders at school level; the implementation of school charters; the procedures for reviewing and amending a charter; and such other matters as are necessary or appropriate for the purposes of the guidelines. In developing the charter guidelines, the Minister must consult with the education partners, including bodies representing students and their parents, as well as the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children. The section provides that the Minister must carry out a review of charter guidelines at least every five years.
Section 27B also provides that the charter guidelines in respect of the content of charters in schools may relate to the following matters: the procedures for consulting with students and their parents on such matters relating to the school as may be specified in the charter guidelines, including by inviting, and responding to, comments and suggestions from students and their parents on any such matter; and information on school plans and policies of the school, other than the admission policy, and the activities of the school. As the Admissions Act 2018 sets out a separate and comprehensive legal framework for the development, publication and implementation of schools' admission policy, the admission policy is excluded from this provision and similar provisions in the Bill. The section also provides for the procedures, including consultation procedures, for the preparation, review and updating of school plans and policies of the school, other than the admission policy, and the development, review and updating of the activities of the school; the procedures for informing students and their parents of matters relating to the operation and performance of the school; and the procedures for informing students and their parents of the activities of the school.
Other charter content set out in section 27B includes information on the structures and systems for the management of the school; the information to be provided to students and their parents relating to moneys that the school receives, including voluntary contributions made by parents, and the expenditure of those moneys by the school, and of the form and manner in which that information is to be provided; the information to be provided to students and their parents relating to the school calendar, closures and timetables and of the form and manner in which that information is to be provided; and the procedures for dealing with grievances of students or their parents relating to the school, and details of aggregated and anonymised information to be provided to students and their parents relating to grievances dealt with by the school, which may include the number or type of such grievances and related outcomes, and the form and manner in which that information is to be provided. The section also provides that the guidelines may, where the Minister considers it necessary, include model charters for different categories of schools and contain different provisions for different categories of schools or different categories of students.
Section 27C provides that the Minister, in preparing the charter guidelines, must have regard to certain matters that are specified in this section.
These matters align with the core principles that were set out in the general scheme of the Bill. There are ten such matters listed from (a) to (j). These are the need for a school to:
(a) seek to achieve, as far as practicable and subject to the resources available, the best possible outcomes for students in relation to their education and personal development,
(b) foster and promote the relationship and a spirit of partnership between the school and students and their parents,
(c) foster and promote mutual respect in communications between the school, including teachers or other staff of the school, on the one hand and students or their parents on the other hand,
(d) ensure, as appropriate, confidentiality in communications referred to in paragraph (c),
(e) promote the role and participation of parents in the education and personal development of students,
(f) consult with, and encourage the participation and engagement of, students (to the extent appropriate to their age and experience) and their parents, and respond, as appropriate, to comments and suggestions made by students and their parents, in respect of the development, review and updating of school plans and policies of the school (other than the admission policy) and the activities of the school,
(g) monitor and review the provision of education by the school to students, including by consulting with, and responding, as appropriate, to comments and suggestions made by, students (to the extent appropriate to their age and experience) and their parents, for the purposes of assessing and improving such provision on an ongoing basis,
(h) foster and promote equality of access for students to, and participation by students in, education by seeking, as far as practicable, to reduce the costs to parents and students of such participation,
(i) address and resolve concerns of students or their parents relating to the school, as far as possible, at an early stage, and
(j) ensure that grievances of students or their parents relating to the school are dealt with efficiently, effectively and fairly and, as far as possible, in an informal manner consistent with the principles of fair procedures.
The fourth new section, 27D, provides the Minister with a power to give a board of management a direction where he or she is of the opinion that the board has failed or is failing in whole or in part, to comply with its obligation to prepare, publish and implement a charter. Before issuing a direction, the Minister must give the board and school patron notice of his or her intention to give a direction, setting out the reasons and the proposed remedial action. The notice must offer the board and the patron, or both, an opportunity to make representations on the proposed direction and provide the board and patron with at least 14 days to do so. The board and the patron therefore have an opportunity to rectify the matter before a direction issues or to make representations on the proposed direction.
The Minister must, in deciding whether or not to give a direction, consider any representations. Where the Minister proceeds to issue a direction, the board must comply with that direction. The Minister is also required to publish the direction on the Department's website no later than 14 days from the date of issue. The board must confirm in writing to the Minister when it has complied with the direction and the Minister, on being satisfied that a direction has been complied with, must publish a notice to that effect on the Department's website. The Minister must also give notice in writing to the board and the patron that he or she is satisfied that the direction has been complied with.
I will move to the other sections of the Bill. Section 3 provides for the amendment of section 2 of the Act of 1998 by inserting definitions for "charter" and "charter guidelines". Section 4 provides for the amendment of section 9 of the Act of 1998. Section 9 of the Act of 1998 sets out the various statutory functions of a school. In line with the purpose and aims of this Bill, two new important functions of a school are being inserted by section 4. These are to promote the involvement of students and their parents in the provision of education to students, and to ensure the implementation of the charter.
Section 5 provides for the amendment of section 20 of the Act of 1998. Section 20 currently refers to procedures for informing parents, but not students, of matters relating to the operation and performance of the school. It is being amended to link those procedures to the charter guidelines and to provide that both students and parents are referred to in the section.
Section 6 provides for the amendment of section 21 of the Act of 1998. Section 21 of the Education Act 1998 concerns the school plan and is being amended to ensure that the arrangements for the preparation of a school plan referred to in that section must comply with any applicable charter guidelines in respect of same.
Section 7 provides for the amendment of section 27 of the Act of 1998. Section 27(1) requires schools to have procedures for informing students about the activities of the school. It is being amended to ensure those procedures comply with any charter guidelines in respect of same and to provide that both students and parents are referred to in this provision.
Section 7 also amends section 27(4) which concerns the role of a student council. The amendment changes the requirement of a student council from one of promoting the interest of the school to a requirement to promote the interest of the students of the school having regard to the characteristic spirit and policies of the school and the charter.
Section 8 provides for replacement of the existing section 28 of the Act of 1998. The existing section 28 of the Education Act 1998 is replaced with a new section 28. The new section 28 is designed to work in tandem with the other charter-related provisions in the Bill. Together, these provisions will ensure that all schools will be required to have and to implement standardised grievance procedures that will be set out in the national charter guidelines following consultation with the education partners. This new section 28 provides that these grievance procedures must provide for matters such as: the requirements to be complied with by the school and the student or parent concerned in relation to the grievance process; the investigation of grievances in a manner appropriate to the nature of the grievance, whether by informal or formal means or both; the resolution of grievances, either formally or informally; the giving of reasons for its decisions on grievances; and the implementation of decisions and any remedial action required.
Section 28(2) provides that a school may, in accordance with the charter guidelines, decide not to deal with the grievance where the grievance is, in the opinion of the school, vexatious or frivolous, and that the school shall give to the student or parent, as the case may be, the reasons for such a decision.
Section 9 is a technical amendment and provides for the amendment of section 42 of the Teaching Council Act 2001 to update an existing reference in that Act to section 28 of the Education Act 1998, replacing it with reference to the grievance procedures provided for under this Bill.
Similarly, section 10 provides for a technical amendment of section 9 of the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 to update an existing reference in that Act to section 28 of the Education Act 1998, replacing it with a reference to the grievance procedures provided for in this Bill.
The final section of the Bill, section 11, is a standard provision to provide for the Short Title, commencement and collective citation of the Education Acts.
I have outlined the provisions of the Bill as passed by the Seanad. I will outline the amendments that I wish to make to the Bill as it progresses through the Dáil. I know that a school can only be at its best when the full engagement and inclusion of every student, parent and member of staff is involved. Since becoming Minister, I have pursued a partnership approach. I am especially pleased that the student voice has been an integral part of all stakeholder engagements in recent months. I believe in an inclusive, collaborative approach to education. I therefore advise the House that I intend to table an amendment on Committee Stage to amend the Short Title of the Bill to the education (school community charter) Bill. The school community will be defined in the Bill as including students, parents and school staff. This amendment should help to reflect the importance of the role of the entire school community in the education of children and young people and to help ensure that the engagement and listening culture that the charter currently provides for is inclusive of the entire school community.
Further amendments to the Bill will be necessary to replace references to students and parents with references to the school community. These amendments will ensure that school staff are included in the consultation process, which the charter provides for, and that they are provided with the same information that students and parents are provided with. I know that many stakeholders have expressed concerns that the Bill as it was initially presented was not fully inclusive of the entire school community. I hope that these changes address those concerns and demonstrate our commitment to ensuring that the Bill is inclusive of everyone in a school.
It is not proposed that the national grievances procedures for parents and students as provided for by the charter guidelines would include school staff, as they are employees of the board of management and have separate grievance procedures.
I also intend to bring another key amendment to the Bill in respect of section 9(2) of the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002. This amendment is proposed to ensure that the Bill does not impact on the current role and remit of the Ombudsman for Children in considering grievances from students and parents. The Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 currently provides in section 9(2) that the Ombudsman for Children may carry out an investigation under the Act in relation to its school only where the grievance procedures prescribed under section 28 of the Education Act have been resorted to and exhausted. Schools are the only body or organisation where there is an absolute bar on the Ombudsman for Children investigating until the local grievance processes have concluded.
However, since no procedures have to date been prescribed under section 28 of the 1998 Act, in practical terms this provision is not operational and, therefore, the Act currently applies to schools in the same way it does to other bodies that can be investigated by the Ombudsman for Children. Without an amendment to this Bill this position would be changed. The Ombudsman for Children has advised that, in practice, the ombudsman would investigate complaints before the local process is exhausted only where the ombudsman has reason to believe that the local process has been deliberately frustrated or that an urgent risk is presented to a child or student. I want to ensure this position is maintained. My officials will engage with the ombudsman further regarding this amendment.
In conclusion, I believe that this Bill is very important legislation. It will both positively and proactively enhance and improve the experience of the entire school community in our schools. I look forward to hearing the views of Deputies regarding the Bill.