Educate Together: Presentation.

I welcome the delegation from Educate Together. I apologise for delaying them but, unfortunately, the business of the House takes precedence over everything else. It is one of the things over which we do not have control. With us is Mr. Paul Rowe, the chief executive officer of Educate Together and his colleagues, Ms Belinda Moller, Ms Marion Fitzpatrick and Ms Jane McCarthy. They are all welcome to the committee.

One of the reasons we were delayed is that the Fine Gael and Labour spokespersons on education are in the House dealing with the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland Bill. I had listed this meeting to finish at 12.20 p.m. which is very shortly. There may be others who wish to get in but members have assured me they have already read the delegation's presentation and met them. Therefore, it does not create a difficulty if the presentation is made in their absence. They will be here to contribute to the debate.

Before we begin, I wish to draw visitors' attention to the fact that members of this committee have absolute privilege but this same privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee. Members are reminded of the long standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such as way as to make him or her identifiable.

I invite Mr. Rowe and his colleagues to make a ten to 15 minute presentation.

Mr. Paul Rowe

I express Educate Together's thanks to the committee for inviting us to address members this morning. Jane McCarthy and I are full time officers of Educate Together. Ms Fitzpatrick and Ms Moller work for our organisation as directors in a voluntary capacity.

In the past 27 years our organisation has been pioneering a model of school governance that provides an alternative to a religiously defined school ethos. Our schools operate under a charter that, among other things, obliges them to respect and actively support the social, cultural and religious identity of all children. We are a voluntary organisation and are recognised by the Department of Education and Science as a partner in primary education. Currently we operate 28 schools, 15 of which are in the greater Dublin area. The model we offer has become very popular with new Irish parents and in response to this strong demand, we are now opening more schools than any other provider in the State. We are a registered charity and depend on voluntary donations. We receive only €38,500 per annum from the State. Educate Together has a very wide remit in advocating educational reform and we look forward to working with the committee on many subjects in the future but today we would like to focus on two specific areas of concern. The first is the growing clash between the constitutional obligations of the State and the predominantly denominational nature of our primary education system. Our Constitution states very clearly that "The State shall not oblige parents in violation of their conscience and lawful preference to send their children to schools established by the State, or to any particular type of school designated by the State". We would like the committee to look at this constitutional provision in the light of the structure of our primary system.

There are currently approximately 3,200 national schools in Ireland, 99% of which are under the patronage of denominational patrons. The Education Act 1998 obliges these schools to uphold the religious ethos of their patrons. The majority of these schools are privately owned, there being fewer than 120 schools in the entire system under State ownership. It is arguable whether the policy of ceding ownership of the primary system to private institutions was ever in the long-term interests of the State.

However, over the past 80 years, it allowed the State to avoid making the scale of investment in property that has been necessary in other jurisdictions. However, set against this, it has resulted in a structure that is inflexible in response to changes in public demand. In particular, it has led the State into a position where it is funding and supporting an overwhelming monopoly of denominational provision. This is compelling an increasing number of citizens to send their children to schools that must under law uphold a religious ethos that conflicts with their conscience or lawful preference. This is clearly not in the public interest. It is damaging to the system itself and is contrary to the stated educational aims of the Department of Education and Science, the Constitution and the Education Act. It is also an affront to numerous international conventions on the rights of citizens and children.

The options for the State appear to be two fold. One is to apply legal measures to compel changes in the ethos of denominational schools. Such an approach would itself represent a retrograde step in the field of human rights. Even if it were considered, it would appear that the protection of patrons under the Constitution and statute law is very strong. The alternative is to work with existing providers to develop a national network of State owned schools that are legally obliged to actively support the religious identity of all citizens. This would appear to be the most responsible approach the State can take in the present circumstances.

It has the following advantages: it is a constructive, co-operative approach to change in the system, it is a proper response to a clearly identified and escalating social need and it will maximise the possibility of the voluntary participation of existing partners in the process. It is also an initiative that will allow the State to show that it is acting to implement its obligations under the Constitution, the Education Act and the Good Friday Agreement. It will in all probability be the State's best defence in the event of legal challenge under these instruments. In addition, because it is starting from a relatively small base, it has great potential for the introduction of best practice in strategic planning and budgetary methods, practices that have been identified as areas of serious weakness in the Department.

Educate Together asks the committee to support the following measures: that the State prioritises supports for school providers who undertake to open and operate schools that work under a legal commitment to respect and actively support the identity of children irrespective of their social, cultural or religious backgrounds and are prepared to submit their operational practices and procedures to independent review by such statutory bodies as the Equality Authority; that, the planning section of the Department of Education and Science works with providers to ensure no family in the State must travel more than 30 minutes in the morning to access a school that actively supports its religious identity; and that funds are allocated to this programme via the national development plan.

The second topic we would like to raise is the inadequate mechanism for the creation of new schools. I refer members to the next part of Article 42.4° of the Constitution which states:

The State shall provide for free primary education and shall endeavour to supplement and give reasonable aid to private and corporate educational initiative, and, when the public good requires it, provide other educational facilities or institutions with due regard, however, for the rights of parents, especially in the matter of religious and moral formation.

It is our contention that currently it is clearly in the interest of the public good and respectful of the rights of parents for the State to assess seriously the mechanism whereby new schools are created. While there have been welcome improvements in the procedure for recognition of new schools over the past year, the mechanism is basically flawed. It is an unplanned and under-resourced mechanism which depends entirely on local voluntary initiative. The central failure is that it depends utterly on the ability of a voluntary group of parents to find suitable accommodation.

The position of the State at present is that if a family seeks an education that actively supports its conscience and is not available in an area, the Department recognises its right to access such an education on the following conditions: it must be prepared to seek out other families in similarcircumstances, organise a local managementbody with them, find suitable temporary accommodation——

Unfortunately, a vote has been called in the Chamber so we must interrupt Mr. Rowe's presentation.

We could continue for another two minutes as we have eight minutes to get to the Chamber.

Mr. Rowe will not be finished anyway, so it would not be fair.

Mr. Rowe

The presentation is timed precisely for 15 minutes.

We will be liberal in that respect. We had better leave it at that and go to the Chamber. Unfortunately, Deputy Stanton is taking over the Chair. Although he would have liked to ask a few questions, he will probably not be back in time. We will return as quickly as we can.

Sitting suspended at 12.25 p.m. and resumed at 12.30 p.m.

Mr. Rowe

The essential position of the State at present is that if a family seeks an education that actively supports their conscience that is not available in the area, the Department recognises their right to access such an education under certain conditions. They must be prepared to seek out families in similar circumstances, organise a local management body with them, source suitable temporary accommodation, create a patron body or apply to one for patronage and then apply to the Department for recognition of the school. Even in the most glaring circumstances, the State is unable to address proactively the need for a new school.

A central difficulty is the requirement of the State that the promoter of the new school must provide the accommodation in which a school can open. Another is that the Department insist that new schools open with only temporary recognition. Until this probationary period passes, they do not qualify for consideration for the building programme. In the past 27 years, the majority of new inclusive schools could open only in unsuitable temporary accommodation. Of the 28 such schools in the State, 15 remain in temporary accommodation and the average time taken to access a permanent building is ten years.

The most worrying phenomenon in recent times is the growing number of developments in areas in which the State has recognised the need for a new school and has required the local authority to reserve a site. Even in these situations, there is no mechanism whereby the new school can open and develop on the site so reserved.

To illustrate this point, we would like to refer to the example of the emerging crisis of accommodation for primary school children in Lucan. Currently the Department acknowledges that there is a shortage of approximately 400 junior infant enrolments in Lucan this year. There are high numbers of parents expressing a preference for an Educate Together school. In response, a new school opened last September. This school currently has an enrolment list in excess of 750 and a list for junior infants this year in excess of 150. Despite the fact that the State has reserved a site for a school in the area and has held this reservation for more than five years, the new school had to open with temporary recognition in a scout den. The board of management of the school has secured planning permission for the erection of buildings on the reserved site and has an agreement to rent it until the State is in the position to purchase. Despite all this local input, the Department has been unable to engage in negotiations with the landowner to allow the school to develop and commence with an intake of 60 children per year. As a result, the initial enrolment of this school was 24 when it could have addressed a capacity of approximately 80 children in this school year and an additional 60 in the coming year.

Critical issues arise from this. Despite the need for this school having been acknowledged for more than six years, why has the State been unwilling to secure a smooth opening on the site it has required the local authority to reserve for it? Why has the Department been unable to secure the leasing of this site by writing to the owner and making a commitment that it will purchase in a given timeframe? In our view, it is essential that the Department is empowered to make commitments based on multi-annual budgets which will allow timely planning. In this case, if the Department had been able to make a commitment to acquire the site within three years, the school could have been located and healthily developing on the reserved site.

There is a different situation for new schools in established areas. There is a different problem where there is a change in demand in areas where there is already ample school accommodation. In these areas, the private ownership of the system has rendered it inflexible. In 2002, for instance, the increasing demand for Educate Together school places in the Marino and Fairview district of North Dublin, led to the creation of the Dublin North Central Educate Together national school. Despite the fact that there is extensive vacant educational space in the area, the school had to open in prefabs, recently vacated by the Educate Together school three miles away in Glasnevin. This resulted in two Educate Together schools operating barely 200 metres from each other while there are empty classrooms, if not wings of schools in the appropriate area. This empty accommodation is in buildings in which the State has invested heavily over many years.

There are critical questions arising from these situations. Has the State sufficient legal safeguards to protect the massive investments it has made in privately owned educational institutions? Will the State be able to reassign any accommodation that becomes vacant? Educate Together asks the committee to agree with the following measures. Departmental policy should be amended to allow the building section to become actively involved in the development of a school from the moment the viable demand for such a facility is acknowledged; professional services should be provided by the Department for this purpose and a discrete budget assigned; and no new school should be opened without an agreed development plan that will include timescales for the delivery of grants and accommodation. We propose that the planning laws be amended to ensure that land for schools is transferred as a condition of rezoning or at original value. There should be a new basket of measures established to support new and developing schools, in particular that a specific, ring-fenced budget be allocated for new schools on a multi-annual basis.

I would like to draw the committee's attention to the increasing difficulties faced by communities which set up new schools in the past three years. When opening a school in 2000 we were asked to provide temporary accommodation for two years. In 2001, this was extended to three years. In 2002, new schools were told that they were responsible for providing temporary accommodation for "seven to ten years". This is simply not a realistic condition.

In the current year, this requirement has been retained and in addition, the voluntary groups now have to pay for detailed architects' and valuers' reports on such accommodation. This year, the fund raising targets for new groups rose from €20,000 to €40,000. I stress, until a school opens, the State provides no support whatsoever for this voluntary community initiative. I do not need to point out the social consequences for this burden and the inequities that will be created.

In the current budgetary year approximately €347 million is available for the primary capital building programme. The vast majority of this expenditure is being applied to the refurbishment of existing privately owned schools. Only €500,000 is allocated for one site purchase. There is no allocation for urgently required site purchases in developing areas. It is unjustifiable that, at a time of such strong flows into the building programme, the situation for those working to create new State owned schools has so deteriorated.

This year, the viable demand for six new Educate Together schools has been recognised by the new schools advisory committee. However, the Minister has approved these schools only on condition that they can provide accommodation for themselves. A significant number will be unable to do so and as a result the constitutional rights of the parents and children concerned will be violated.

It would be remiss of me not to convey to the committee the sense of outrage, anger, bewilderment and betrayal that people placed in such a situation feel. They are merely seeking an education that respects and supports their identity. They see that the provision of such schools will complement the system and provide a choice where instead there is a monopoly. They deserve better from our State and Government and they are asking for the committee's support.

I welcome the Educate Together group which I met previously on a one-to-one basis.

We have a successfully managed primary and secondary school system. In the past, were it not for the involvement of religious orders in education, many of us would not have been educated to the extent that we were. In the provision of school buildings, one does not want to think about the financial aspect the State would be in but for the tireless work of the religious orders. Currently, in their involvement with trusteeships - though minimal - they continue to make this contribution.

Is the Educate Together delegation endeavouring to create a need for new schools? In north Tipperary I have not encountered any family who wish their religious beliefs were catered on an independent basis from the current primary school system. Parents have the option of the child staying at home to be educated if they are not happy with the current system in their locality. The majority of schools are Christian. I am not aware of any school that has turned down a child of another denomination as it would be against their Christian ethos to do so. Is the Educate Together group in the business of creating a need for its schools?

With regard to school accommodation, the Department is addressing as best it can the issue of building programmes and maintaining the current buildings. If you proceeded rapidly with your cause, I could envisage massive financial difficulty providing extra buildings in towns with only the existing population. It would be a matter of transferring numbers to other buildings when we have classrooms being closed in some places with falling populations. The aspect of value for money must be examined.

I am interested to know how religious education is conducted in the school. Is it conducted there at all or provided outside the school facility? Is there also a danger for those who wish to have, and are very serious about, religious education of their children that it might be diluted by the several different denominations all demanding religious education under one roof? What we have in place currently has worked and is working very well. The preoccupation of parents is not the ethos of the school their children attend but the standard of education which is excellent throughout the country. The other preoccupation, as we well know, is the standard of accommodation, which I admit must be improved rapidly. I challenge the committee on that. Are you creating a need? I acknowledge that there are some people out there who wish it, but do you seek State run schools which, with the introduction of many gods, may ultimately become godless, as we have seen in France and England? People who seek quality education for their children look to the religious orders, especially in England. I challenge the committee on that.

Some people, including Deputies Enright, O'Sullivan, Gogarty, Crowe and Andrews and Senators Tuffy and Minihan have said they have other commitments.

I must leave for an RTE interview at around 1 o'clock. I do not know how long it will take.

Would people mind if we gave him two minutes and let him go and prepare so he does really well on RTE?

I thank the Educate Together people for attending today. I will be brief and hope to return for some of your responses. I take issue with several of the points made by Deputy Hoctor, not necessarily criticising her viewpoint, because her constituency is a little more rural and not a rapidly growing Dublin suburb. I would like to outline my own experience in the Dublin Mid West Constituency. In Lucan, which is the fastest growing town in the country, the Archbishop Ryan School is the only school in Lucan South parish. It is a Catholic school without enough places and has a priority system whereby Catholic children come first. The neighbouring Traveller children come second. If one is of any other persuasion, be it Moslem, Hindu or of no particular denomination, one must join the bottom of the list. The reality is that there are no places available.

There is an Educate Together school in Lucan which caters for the whole area. It is over-subscribed. A new one is starting up, and there is a major problem securing sanction for temporary accommodation. I ask the group whether it agrees that the issue is not creating a need but responding to one. That need is currently primarily in rapidly growing urban areas where there has been much development but no planning for infrastructure on the part of the Department of Education and Science. The only way to change this is a decision from the Minister for Education and Science to work with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to change the planning laws to fast track the construction of schools which respond to a demand. There are schools in my constituency that cater for demand and are church run. They are very well managed and excellent schools, but there are people from other ethnic groups who do not want to attend a Catholic run school. There are people with a Caucasian background who do not want to go to a Catholic school. Educate Together is responding to a need not just in terms of a choice of education open to parents but because there have been no new church run schools built in that area of rapidly growing population. Educate Together is filling a gap and, were it not for such groups and the gaelscoileanna, the crisis would be far worse.

In the absence of a proper Department of Education and Science strategy to deal with the problem, some measures should be put into place, even on a temporary or emergency basis, to facilitate such groups as Educate Together so that the crisis does not become even worse, particularly in urban areas. I suggest it will reach Tipperary eventually.

While I might not agree with Deputy Hoctor's comments, I do not think that because she comes from a rural constituency she holds those views. I live only a few miles away and represent a similar area, but my views are slightly different.

I welcome the four members of Educate Together here today and apologise that I was not here for the start of your presentation. I have only a few brief comments. First, I support the right of parents to choose where their children attend primary school, in a setting that reflects the parents' ethos, religious or otherwise. How that is to be brought about is a big problem for us all. I do not think that, because there is a lack of demand in certain areas for an Educate Together school, it is necessarily because parents do not want the choice. It may be that they are unaware of it or have not had the opportunity to think about it. In many cases they are so tied up with fund raising to try to improve the schools their children currently attend that they could not even envisage the idea of having to start from scratch and get a school recognised and then built.

The argument has been made that Educate Together has been creating a need. For me it is answering a need that exists. One could make the same argument about the gaelscoileanna. Are they creating a need to educate children through Irish? I support their right to do so and the right of parents to send their children there. I know that one Gaelscoil is an Educate Together school. There is demand out there, and if any organisation or group of people wishes to come together to have their children educated in a certain way, that is an entitlement under the Constitution. The question is where we go with it. The school building programme has a huge impact on this, and there are massive funding problems with it. Hundreds of schools around the country are in a very poor state of repair. How the creation of further schools affects that or puts pressure on it must be an issue for us.

I hope that this is not becoming an urban versus rural debate. There is already a problem, though perhaps more in rural Ireland than in cities, where parents drive their children past empty school classrooms because they choose to send their children to a different school - though that has nothing to do with Educate Together. They are not of the same ethos, but there is a perception that one school is better than another. That is creating pressures for the building programme that should not exist. When I met you individually, the issue arose of how schools have traditionally been funded. As Deputy Hoctor and Deputy Gogarty have said, if the churches had not been involved from the beginning, we do not know what would be there, but the Department of Education and Science would obviously have been in the position that it would have had to provide the school buildings. However, it has put huge investment into them, year in, year out, through capitation grants and the provision of buildings - yet it does not own them. The Department has probably invested billions in something it cannot touch. There may be an empty school in an area or even one with three or four empty classrooms.

There may be demand for an Educate Together school, but there is no mechanism or provision there for the Department to step in and say that, if the space is there, it could be used. In Portlaoise the Department is currently trying to develop a campus for two secondary schools and a primary school, which will be run separately, with separate boards of management and so on but using one campus facility. If we are to provide more Educate Together schools, we must examine options such as this. One cannot simply say in a small town of perhaps 4,000 people, that we can afford to have a girls' school, a boys' school, an Educate Together school and a gaelscoil; the country would go bankrupt. In trying to achieve what you desire, we will have to examine other methods, perhaps with more new ideas than in the past.

I too welcome the delegation and apologise for being late. Unfortunately we had business in the Dáil. I take a fundamentally different approach from Deputy Hoctor. I often agree with her on many issues in the committee, but not on this. I speak as somebody who would have liked an Educate Together option when my children were young. I met with a number of like-minded parents in the Limerick area at the time but, unfortunately, we did not have the numbers to make it possible. I had to send my children to a denominational school but my husband and I wanted the option Educate Together is offering. That option is now available in Limerick and I suspect many parents in north Tipperary send their children to the Limerick Educate Together school because they do not have that option in north Tipperary. I believe there are parents in north Tipperary who want that option but they are probably not sufficiently numerous to be able to avail of their constitutional right to send their children to the school of their choice. It is an anachronism that we have those opportunities at second and third level but not at primary level. Approximately 99% of the schools in our education system are denominational. I congratulate Educate Together on providing these opportunities for parents and it should be supported.

It is time for a reappraisal of the way the whole system is organised. Educate Together is right to request the Department to become more active in making available that option to parents because we have the status quo. If parents want their children to attend a denominational school, by and large they have that option, but not if they are from a smaller denomination. If they are Catholic, however, they have that option but it is still not available to many parents, despite the success of Educate Together schools. I do not want to be totally unreasonable. I do not believe this option can be provided everywhere but it should be facilitated where a reasonable number of parents are requesting it. There is a system whereby we can identify an appropriate number of parents who want that option but their difficulty is the cost. That makes it exclusive and only when there are enough parents who can afford the option can such a school be set up.

What would Mr. Rowe estimate to be the collective cost for a group of parents who want to set up an Educate Together school? What response has Educate Together had from the Department in respect of the issues raised by it, and Deputy Enright, about vacant buildings or materials, furniture, etc., that is not being used in a school but which is required for a new Educate Together school?

The point that land for schools should be available at reasonable prices rather than rezoned prices is valid in respect of the planning laws. On the point about a site being designated for a new school, there should be a facility whereby the Department of Education and Science can proactively obtain that site and allocate it to a group of parents who want a particular ethos for the children in their area. I am aware it is difficult to set up a school. It is probably not all that difficult to set up in temporary premises but it is certainly difficult to get a permanent school established. Will Mr. Rowe elaborate a little more on the cost and the difficulties in that regard?

Looking at the recent census figures, and the Chairman may have examined them more closely than the rest of us because of the ethos he comes from, it appears there has been a change since the system was set up. That should be reflected in the options available for parents. In the document we received from the group yesterday, the point is well made that one of the objectives of the national school system was to unite in one system children of different creeds while taking the most scrupulous care not to interfere with the religious beliefs of any one of them. It is true that Educate Together is reflecting the original aims of the national school system much more clearly than the system currently in place.

I reiterate that it is time for an examination of the whole support system and to recognise that the wishes of parents have changed. Wherever a group of parents sets up an Educate Together school, my information - Mr. Rowe can correct me if I am wrong - is that in many cases they immediately have waiting lists they cannot fulfil. Where a service is available, the demand becomes very strong. That is not an artificially created demand. It is a genuine wish of parents to have their children mix with children of other religious backgrounds. If we look at the history of the northern part of our country, it is a deeply felt wish that children should have the opportunity to mix with others who may be of a different ethos while, at the same time, preserving whatever ethos they wish to pass on to their own children.

I, too, would like to join with previous speakers in welcoming Mr. Rowe here this morning and I thank him for his submission. I am sorry I was not hear for his verbal presentation - I was voting in the Seanad - but I have read the report and I have met him previously so I am familiar with his views.

I echo what Deputy O'Sullivan said in that the time has come for us to examine the whole area of education with regard to the multi-cultural society in which we now live but we have to be realistic in terms of what is and is not achievable. Previous speakers mentioned the issues of gaelscoileanna and the different denominational schools - Muslim, Catholic, Protestant - but we also have the international schools. The Japanese and American models are increasing, albeit in a private capacity. The time has come for us to seriously examine what we want, particularly in terms of properties vested in the community for the benefit of the community, and what is and is not affordable.

I had a Catholic education, for which I am very grateful. One of my sons was educated in the Catholic faith school system but my younger son is now being educated in a Church of Ireland secondary school. I have no complaints about that, nor have I any preferences. I respect both traditions. My younger son attends a multi-cultural type school in Dublin and I can see the benefits of that in his development. He is mixing with people from different religious backgrounds and the questions that raises for him are to his betterment. That is not a reflection on any other type of school. My personal experience is that there is something to be gained from a multi-cultural society. We speak openly at times about a multi-cultural society but that must be reflected in the systems that operate in this country.

A number of questions arise. We all know that the zoning of land for education would be included in a development plan but there is a question about the process thereafter of deciding on the types of schools to be provided.

Deputy O'Sullivan also made a point about the cost of land designated for education. In the granting of planning permission applications, the contributions being sought by local authorities are questionable, a point raised previously in this committee. Apparently, the local authorities line is that they treat every application equally but the building of schools should not be subject to the same demand for contributions, which can be huge and add to the overall cost of providing the school.

This presentation is timely and its thought provoking comments will make us reflect on society. We were elected to represent, mirror and legislate for society. There is no doubt society has changed and we must change with it. When building new schools which are for the benefit of the entire community, we must recognise the rights of all concerned, including what parents deem to be the best for themselves and their children. However, the country cannot afford huge capital expenditure. Resources must be utilised to the best of our ability. In that regard, your submission is timely and thought provoking.

Many policy decisions on future direction must be made. There must also be a freeing of existing capital projects, such as schools and classrooms, in terms of ownership and designation. We must revisit this. The schools are for the benefit of the community and proper use must be made of them in the interests of the community. While you may not get answers at this meeting, you have succeeded in raising a number of issues which the committee will have to examine. I thank you for doing that. If no more is achieved by your visit today than getting that process under way, you will have achieved much.

I welcome the delegation. People tend to be defensive on the kinds of issues that have been raised. The reality is that 99% of schools in the State are denominational. The group seems to be concerned with giving people a choice, which I welcome. The situation in the North was referred to. The then Minister for Education, Martin McGuinness MLA, spent more money on multi-denominational education during his tenure than the British Government had spent over the previous 30 years. There is a recognition of the need for greater work in this area which should not be confined to children playing together and so on.

The group's document mentions that 120 schools in the entire system are under State ownership. That highlights the difficulties. Many of the schools are run by religious orders, etc., for historical reasons, yet it is crazy that the State is spending money on them while these bodies can close schools without having to pay compensation to the State for the upkeep of the buildings. You also outlined the difficulties for those involved in trying to open a new school, including procurement of the necessary resources. Many disadvantaged areas may not have the people with the necessary skills to set up a school.

The group mentioned that the State is in breach of the Constitution in this area. If the State is not fulfilling its constitutional obligations that will have serious implications. You also mention that of the 28 new inclusive schools, 15 remain in temporary accommodation while it takes 15 years for a school to be recognised. Why? It is argued that there is insufficient investment. Your documentation deals with budgetary difficulties and the fact that most of the money is being spent on refurbishment while only €500,000 is being allocated for on-site purchases.

There is insufficient investment in new schools. It is common sense that the way forward must mean the State taking ownership of the provision of schools. When you speak of expanding nationally, are you concerned with developing links with similar groups in the Six Counties? Have you tried to establish schools in disadvantaged areas?

Reference was made to reserve sites. In the case of a school located in Donabate, the Department refused to reply in writing to difficulties between Fingal County Council and the school. Perhaps you would outline the difficulties in this area.

I welcome the delegation. I am sure the delegates will admit that the current situation is part of a historical development and is the result of the fact that the State did not provide education for people for many years and that the Catholic Church, in particular, and the Church of Ireland provided education where the State had failed. They also provided social services across a range of areas. The legacy today is that their failings are being exposed. However, it should not have been the duty of the churches to provide such services. The State should have delivered a service from the outset but it failed to do so. We should thank all of the churches for what they have provided to the country over the years and I think the delegation probably accepts that.

I am not a very religious person and am almost of the view that religion is like politics - it should be left to people over the age of 18 years. Children do not understand the issues. My religious education ended on reaching the age when I began to understand what was involved. It is a matter for debate.

The issues concerning the Constitution are interesting. According to the Preamble, the Constitution derives its authority from God. One would think a State that derives its legal authority from God would pursue a public policy of religious instruction in primary schools. I know you do that and I have had the opportunity to speak to you on that aspect. Members are interested in how you provide religious instruction in the schools you run.

I agree with the first three points on page 7 of your submission. However, the fourth point, recommending that planning laws should be amended to ensure that land for schools is transferred as a condition of rezoning or at original value, is being addressed by the Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution. There is a requirement to obtain land for a range of reasons concerning social issues, not only to do with schooling, while avoiding the undue enrichment of those who have speculated in land.

Perhaps you could expand on what you mean when you refer to a basket of measures. It appears vague. Everybody wants multi-annual funding but Departments can be reluctant to provide it.

I support what you are doing. The first school in the project - the Dalkey school project - was in my constituency and members of my family are seeking to have their children attend this or similar schools.

I welcome the delegation and support the call for a State network of the Educate Together type of school. It is a recognition that things have changed, especially in the context of the background outlined by Deputy Andrews. While there always was diversity, it has accelerated with the modernisation of society. We need to recognise that in our education system. I agree with the idea that a review is not mutually exclusive from recognising the role of the religious bodies in providing education. Mr. Rowe pointed out that Educate Together is opening more schools than anyone else at present. That is a pattern that will continue. It is a response to a gap in educational provision and to a demand. It has been left to parents to establish new schools, including in my area of Lucan. They opted for the Educate Together model for the two new schools that have been opened. Such schools create a further demand by being successful and reflecting modern needs in educational provision. Some still choose a religious education. The direction outlined is the one we should adopt but we would need to consult all partners as to how it might be achieved.

Important points were raised about the acquisition of school buildings, the cost involved in establishing schools and whether this should initially be imposed on parents. I like the idea that the planning laws need to be amended to ensure that land for schools is transferred as a condition of rezoning or at original value. It is amazing that public open space and roads are automatically transferred yet a market value must be negotiated for land for schools. This does not seem right and we must do something about it. We need to examine the use of the infrastructure we have to provide different types of education.

I support what the delegation suggests but if we choose this option, we need to include all the different parties and ensure we recognise that there is a role for religious bodies as well in terms of educational provision.

Among the specific measures Mr. Rowe has requested the committee to support is schools that work under a lead commitment to respect and actively support the identity of children. By implication he suggests that there are some and possibly many schools that do not do this. As someone who spent a little more than 20 years in front of a class, I would be horrified if this were the case. On the other hand, I would be reluctant to say that Mr. Rowe is wrong since all of us have been horrified by the stories we have heard about the treatment of children in schools in terms of sexual and physical abuse by a minority of teachers. The fact that I spent 20 years in front a class does not mean I know what happened in front of every other class. It may well be that Mr. Rowe has grounds for what he says. If that case were established independently of whatever Educate Together proposed, it would be of concern to all committee members and anyone interested in education and that ought to be addressed.

Mr. Rowe also referred to access to schools that actively support children's religious identity. I know that teachers in general feel that extraordinary demands are made of them and I have a great deal of sympathy with that view. I had the pleasure of having children from many religious and ethnic backgrounds attend my school, despite the fact that it was a small rural one. However, it happened to be in an area that attracted people from other countries who made a lifestyle choice in terms of where they wanted to live or getting away from places in which they did not want to live. I had the opportunity to deal with those who either had no religious background or did not have a Catholic background. We managed reasonably successfully.

That said, I could not say I actively supported everyone's religious identity. I doubt there is a teacher in the world who could actively support several religious identities, regardless of how committed he or she may be to liberalism and openness. From the point of view of the practitioner, I am not sure it is possible to be all things to all people in terms of religious identity. It is possible to be neutral but I am not sure it is possible to actively support several religious identities simultaneously.

I imagine that almost everyone agrees with the point about the planning laws. Some work is being done by the Joint Committee on the Constitution. Perhaps it is a point we should raise with the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government. Clearly, whatever arrangements were made in Lucan were worse than no arrangement in terms of the outcome. This needs to be rectified for the future.

I do not have much difficulty with the other points. I inform Mr. Rowe that, for a formal motion to be put before the committee, a certain procedure must be followed that is impossible to carry out today. As it transpires, we agreed previously to invite the Minister to attend a meeting to discuss the building programme. Mr. Rowe can take it that the specific points he has made will be raised with the Minister on that occasion by several committee members. It is likely that the meeting will take place this month. Unless someone has forgotten to ask a question, I invite Mr. Rowe to respond.

Mr. Rowe

I am encouraged by the depth of thought of committee members. We have tried to group the different questions together to focus on them.

Regarding the challenge that we are endeavouring to create rather than respond to a need, our history shows that all our schools are created from the bottom up by voluntary groups of parents. We would not exist if there had not been a need which people were not only prepared to express but for which they were prepared to combine together at enormous cost to themselves in terms of time and effort to create the schools we represent and the movement we have become. We are certainly not interested in creating a need in this respect. We are a response to a strong and objective trend in society which is independent of the will or wishes of any one person.

All the factors driving religious, ethical, social and cultural diversity in our country have been commented on widely elsewhere and demonstrated conclusively in the census results released in the past month which show a spectacular increase in the numbers of people in Ireland declaring themselves to have no religion. This includes a significant number of people in Tipperary North and South and other rural areas of the country.

That said, I stress that it is Educate Together's policy and entire tradition that we have always worked and sought to work in the greatest friendship and co-operation with denominational providers. We have the utmost respect for the contribution of the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland in stepping into the breach, as one Deputy said, that had been left by the State in the past in not taking up its responsibility for the education system.

To illustrate this point, Sister Eileen Randles, the recently retired general secretary of the Catholic Primary School Managers Association made the point in a paper presented to the INTO education conference last November that, although the legal safeguards have been put in place for the continuation of the ethos of denominational schools, their numerical dominance may not be to their benefit. It is this type of issue, in terms of how we as a society plan for the future, that we are addressing. We are addressing the legal framework. The legal framework is significant today because it is only since January 2000 that the Education Act has been fully in place. Before that date there was no Education Act underpinning the education system. It was only since January 2002 that the Education Welfare Act was put in place fully. The Education Welfare Act compels a parent to send their child to a recognised form of education. It also places the bar of standards for home education at a level that makes this non-viable as an option for parents today, certainly not parents with two salaries and paying modern mortgages. The option of home education was a get-out clause in the past for the State but it has simply become non-viable.

This legal framework has suddenly become relevant in two years and we are addressing it. I endorse Deputy Killeen's experience that in many well run Catholic schools extraordinary efforts have been made to accommodate and facilitate children of different faiths. The issue is that they have to be accommodated; accommodation was made for children who were different. We propose the development of a grouping of schools or access for families to schools which operate under a legal obligation that the religious identities of the children will be equally respected in the running and the legal framework in which the school operates. Under the Education Act school boards of management must uphold the religious ethos of their patrons. This did not apply before the Education Act. Such power and influence over the school ethos took place through the power of property and the pressure of personnel, but it is now a legal requirement. This is a serious legal concern for us going into the future that the State has put itself into a position where a citizen can reasonably say that a local school is required to uphold a Catholic ethos, which conflicts with his or her conscience. It is that question which we think is vital. I endorse the tremendous efforts of the teaching professions and the religious orders in their educational functions in the past.

We were asked how religious education is provided in our schools and a number of concerns were raised. The religious education programme in Educate Together has been developed over 27 years and is a programme of comparative religious education. It is education about religious identity, faith and belief. It also involves all aspects of identity, respect for self and for the community and respect for society and the environment. It is a comprehensive programme of what we call the ethical education core curriculum of our schools.

Typically our schools would celebrate the main faith festivals throughout the school year from an educational viewpoint. They mark the Chinese New Year, the Christian festivals at Easter including Celtic and other underpinnings of such festivals with Easter eggs and so on. In the autumn we have the Hindu festival of light, the end of Ramadan and Christmas and the solstice. These are done to talk about the festivals and to inform. They are integrated beautifully with history, geography, art, music and other school programmes. The school does not seek to inculcate a particular religious viewpoint. At the same time it provides facilities for any group of parents who wish to conduct doctrinal instruction outside the school programme. The way this works practically is that no child has to absent themselves from the main school programmes and can opt in for specific religious classes.

We have found this offers huge advantages and not just to those who may not hold the majority religious belief. For a start, it places a responsibility for religious formation on religious institutions and families and ensures religious instruction classes are attended by those who wish to be there. Also, it ensures a teacher is never put in a situation where they must teach as a religious truth a belief or view they may not hold themselves. We are increasingly in discussion with passionate religious educators about the benefit of this model for the future religious formation of children.

It is typically the comment that in Educate Together schools there is more comment about God and religion than would be the case in many denominational schools. The phrase "potentially godless schools" is not accurate. Jane McCarthy will talk about the cost of setting up a new school and how this impacts on our efforts to set up schools in disadvantaged areas.

Regarding the cost of setting up a new school, the schools generally start when a small group of parents get together and decide this is the kind of education they want in their area. The tasks those groups face are varied. In rural areas there is a huge need for awareness building but that may already exist in urban areas. While urban groups face the challenges of publicity and lobbying, those challenges may not be as pressing as in an area like Ballina, County Mayo, where we are trying to open a school in September.

Providing temporary accommodation, and permanent accommodation down the line, is a huge task for these groups. The Department asked us this year to provide temporary accommodation for seven to ten years. In effect no landlord will give a lease for longer than four years nine months, so the task of providing accommodation for seven to ten years is quite impossible, particularly as most of our schools, once they open, create an extra class every year. When one of our schools has been open five or six years there may be eight classrooms and a growing waiting list.

These are the tasks faced by voluntary groups of parents and, as Mr. Rowe said, in most cases both parents are working. They have young families and are trying to establish a school. They must seek publicity, and a premises and lobby councillors and local authorities while facing strict timescales. They are faced with very strict timescales this year. The Department introduced a new system for the opening of new schools under the new schools advisory committee. For example, by 31 January new school groups must submit an architect's report, valuer's report and all types of technical reports on the prospective premises. For the first time this year, recognition was granted on 15 May rather than on the agreed date of 30 April, subject to premises being approved by the Department. This still has not happened and it will not be happening for a couple of weeks. In effect, principals are now being appointed to schools even though premises have not been approved. The working group, which set up the school, will find itself moving rapidly into a situation where they are an acting board of management and becoming employers of staff. It is quite a task for a voluntary group of parents, with very few resources and no training.

It has been estimated that the cost of setting up the school will be between €30,000 and €40,000. This does not include personal phone calls, mobile calls, travel and so on. It includes basic communication, technical reports, rental income for the first year and what the group's contribution would have to be. Effectively, a group is being asked to fund raise or contribute in the region of €30,000 to €40,000. In answer to Deputy Crowe's question, this will make setting up a school in a disadvantaged area very difficult. The ideal location for an Educate Together school would probably be in a peripheral area because we would like our schools to reflect a social mix. From the point of view of setting up a school in a disadvantaged area, we have spoken to people in Tallaght, for example. It will be long-term project and there will be quite a bit of capacity building. Given that under the current system there is no funding for training or supports for potential schools, it will be a very difficult task.

I want to add to what Ms McCarthy said about the difficulties involved for groups of parents. The idea that we are creating a demand is completely untrue. Educate Together has a fully paid staff of five. They will host a public meeting in an area where an Educate Together school is over-subscribed. They usually get a great turnout and out of that is born a small group of people, perhaps ten, who would not know one another but who want the same things for their children. Very often it is the mix of skills in a group that will determine the success of that group in opening the school. As Ms McCarthy said, one must start fund raising straightaway. One must let as many people as possible know who want to have their child in an Educate Together school that there is the potential for a school in the area. Such is the commitment to this model that people are prepared to pre-enrol their children in a school that does not exist.

We find it very frustrating at present even where the Department acknowledges and recognises there is demand for a school in a particular area, gives approval to open a school and gives sanction to advertise for a principal, it then says that people must find a building in which to locate the school. This cannot be allowed to continue.

Mr. Rowe

In regard to the basket of measures proposed for new and developing schools, the first relates to the active involvement of the building and planning unit from the time the Department recognises the need for a school. For example, Ms McCarthy and I are involved in the joint liaison committee for the planning of new schools in the Dublin area. This committee is composed of all the planning authorities, the Department of Education and Science and all the patrons of schools in the greater Dublin area. At this stage we will look at the development plans and the Department requests the planning authorities reserve sites for schools. This committee meets every six month and we have sites reserved where the Department recognises from demographics there is need for schools. It should be at the stage the planning and building section of the Department becomes involved to proactively provide the supports necessary to create the school. The current situation is that these sites are just reserved and nothing happens unless there is some voluntary initiative to do something.

In regard to the ability of voluntary groups to claim back expenses involved in assisting the Department with planning applications, valuations, etc., we have been challenging the Department since last September in that the State requires a voluntary group to pay for it to be satisfied the accommodation meets the building regulations and so on. We are seeking funding for training programmes for voluntary groups establishing schools. It is of major concern to us as the patron body - it should be to the State - that a voluntary group of people must assume huge financial and managerial responsibility for a school, with no training other than what we can provide as a education or charity. We do not get a single cent of a grant to provide that training.

On the abolition of the 75% level of grant aid for start-up schools, Deputies may not be aware there is an unbelievable anachronism whereby if one sets up a school and has temporary recognition, one must pay 25% of the rent for the school but, once the school is recognised, one must pay 5% only. In no other area of social initiative is one penalised in a start-up phase. This measure should be abolished.

On the application of caps, there is currently a cap of €3,175 on the amount of local contribution to the rent for a school, which works on a January to January basis. When one is starting a school one must pay up to €3,175 in September to December and that cap must be imposed in the next year. In other words, in the first year one must pay twice the capped amount. The other part of the measure includes the application of all departmental grants for developing schools on the same basis as staff allocations. A development school is a school which is recognised to be expanding by at least 25 children per year. In this case one can get the teaching staff for the current year's needs but anachronistically all the other grants, including capitation grants, library grants, computer grants and so on, are based on the previous year's numbers. This means the developing school is every year working on grants which are set for one full class less than the school is providing. Lastly, all schools with developing status should have a sliding scale of administrative days for the principal teacher. I hope Deputy Killeen will appreciate this.

I hope I do not have to.

Mr. Rowe

In a developing school the stress is placed on the principal, not only of administering and running the school but also of meeting its developmental needs and he or she must worry about where additional accommodation will be found and so on. It is extremely difficult to get anybody to apply for a principalship. This is because the pressures on principal teachers have become quite extraordinary. As employers, we are seriously concerned whether it is justifiable to place these fantastically motivated people under such pressure. There should be a sliding scale of administrative days leading to an early walking principal status for developing schools.

I welcome Educate Together and congratulate the witnesses on the extraordinary work carried out by the organisation in the last 20 years or so. I was taken aback by some of the comments by members earlier this morning, particularly those of Deputy Hoctor who talked about these schools as godless schools. Deputy Hoctor may need some education herself as to what Educate Together schools are all about.

I have been involved with Educate Together schools for almost 20 years. I have been lucky enough to have had three children going through an Educate Together school and I feel very grateful to that sector for the contribution it has made to the education of my children. Far from being godless the schools provide a central place for the whole area of religion and faith among pupils and their families. I am not sure if members fully appreciate the manner in which religious education is provided. One of the great strengths of the Educate Together schools is the ethical education they provide through the core curriculum. This is a basic ethical education which is devised by parents and staff, in many cases with the co-operation of children. It is one that reflects the basic beliefs and principles shared by the school community. For that reason an organic religious or ethical education is developed which contributes to a huge extent to the character building of the pupils. I hope Deputy Hoctor will take the trouble to find out about the schools and to speak to people who have been involved in them.

It is entirely untrue to suggest that a demand is being created. It has been found that once a small group of parents get together and decide they want a different kind of education, which is democratically controlled, for their children the demand grows very quickly within a couple of years. When a small school starts off with one or two classes, within five or six years it is filled to capacity and there are long waiting lists. That has been the experience with all the Educate Together schools. There is no question of going out looking for pupils. Where a school is established it is inundated with requests.

The challenge for this committee is to look at how the accommodation needs of this burgeoning new sector can be met alongside the existing accommodation provision. On the one hand denominational schools are declining in numbers and there is this growing sector on the other. That has to be examined by the committee and a way found to marry the two.

The committee has a responsibility to look at the extremely unfair burden placed on parents who opt for this other kind of education. There is a huge network behind organisations which provide denominational education and a body which has property, expertise and staff. Educate Together started as a voluntary organisation and does not have that kind of framework or base from which to operate. For that reason it is important that this new sector is put on a proper financial footing to enable it to operate effectively, as the other sectors of education can do. Enormous demands are placed on parents who opt for multi-denominational education.

One of the other attractions of an Educate Together education is that it is democratic. Increasingly, parents who have a concern feel that in a denominational school they are told to take it or leave it. Denominational schools are run as private concerns. They are private businesses and there is very little accountability. It is different in the Educate Together sector. Schools are democratically run and if there is a difficulty, changes can be made to approaches or to any aspect of the school by the parents on a democratic basis.

We should devote some time to looking at how parents who opt for a different kind of education through the multi-denominational system can be supported in doing that and how the playing pitch can be levelled for them. It is very unfair at the moment. As well as the pressures of everyday life, parents must spend long years searching for sites in a very difficult market and trying to compete with developers for sites for their schools. In addition they spend huge amounts of time fund raising just to keep the show on the road. In the coming months I hope the committee can apply itself to the question of how the State can support this growing sector and ensure that everyone's right to an education which is in keeping with their own beliefs can be accommodated.

There is an Educate Together school in Tralee in my constituency. Tralee Educate Together school has 24 pupils and it is expected that this number will double September next. This is one of the fastest growing sectors in education today. Times have changed. Religious participation is declining while participation in education is increasing and people are better educated than heretofore.

What is the mission of Educate Together? What are the schools trying to achieve? What mandate do the witnesses have? Who elected them and who do they represent? I know the principal of the Tralee Educate Together school, Mike O'Donnell, quite well and I am in regular contact with him. I try to help him with the problems he faces in trying to set up a school. The school was recognised in a temporary capacity last September and we are working towards getting more permanent accommodation.

I visited the Lucan Educate Together school on more than one occasion. I hope this committee will also get a chance to do so. I have no doubt officials of the Department of Education and Science have visited the school but they have not gone often enough to see the practical problems posed by temporary accommodation. It is also interesting in terms of the religious aspect. I do not denigrate Catholic or Church of Ireland schools but any time I visited Lucan Educate Together school it seemed to be a very spiritual school. Because it keeps religion out of the mainstream part of the school but still includes it for those who wish, it allows people to express their own religious tradition in a more open, inclusive and forthright way. From my experience, Educate Together schools seem to be more spiritual even for those of a more traditionally Irish Catholic or Protestant background. The Department of Education and Science needs to look at this in terms of giving more practical support.

If there was less opposition by denominations to opening up how education is managed by the State it would benefit both the churches and the provision of more school places. We have had some mention in today's presentation and in the report back of what can be done. If the Department could do something tomorrow that this committee could endorse, what three areas would Educate Together want done? I presume temporary accommodation would be one of the issues. Is it the delegation's opinion that cost is the reason the Department is holding back or is it more to do with bureaucracy? I would like the message to go from this committee that it is urgent that the bureaucracy is tackled, if that is what it is.

I wish to take forward what we are going to do about this issue and the recommendations on the top of page seven. Members of the committee from different political backgrounds have expressed support for some or all of these proposals. I suggest that we set aside some time to discuss these proposals at one of our July meetings and how we can promote them with the Department of Education and Science.

We will raise them with the Minister at the meeting about the building programme.

Yes, but we need to identify specifically what we can do about them.

We will look for a response to Educate Together's specific requests to the committee. We will ask the Minister to respond in his address to us to the points on pages three and seven.

I think we should monitor them as well in the future.

There have been three lots of queries for Mr. Rowe.

Mr. Rowe

I am conscious that we have not fully covered some queries put forward. Members asked about financial implications or difficulties and the value of money approach, etc. We want to stress that the reform we advocate for the new schools' mechanism applies to all schools. It does not just apply to new Educate Together schools but to new gaelscoileanna or any school required in expanding areas. The same problems exist.

In terms of the overall financial situation, the committee would agree that there is a necessity for the State to prioritise investment in education as an investment in the future of the country rather than as a cost to the Exchequer. Irrespective of that argument, there is little cost implication in the planned development of national network of inclusive schools. First, in areas of rapid growth these schools are required anyway and it is a question of getting the mix of schools correct. Second, in established areas there is ample scope, in terms of rationalisations and co-operative developments between patron bodies, to ensure there is not a huge cost implication to what we are proposing.

At administrative level the response from the Department is positive to interfacing with Educate Together and the objectives we have advocated. The historical problem with the Department is that the entire mindset of the administration of education in Ireland has been built up with a necessity to interface with large institutional bodies with extensive resources of land and international financial structures. This mindset and structure and culture are completely inappropriate when interfacing with voluntary groups. It is different to the way other Departments interface with and welcome community initiative in other areas.

We have excellent working relationships with the Department. There is currently a huge process of change going on in the Department of Education and Science. One of the great difficulties at the moment, as a result of the embargo on new recruitment, is that there is a historical lack of resources in building and planning which is difficult to address. Historically the whole initiative for planning schools was passed to the religious bodies and the State simply had the role of deciding whether grants were assigned. The problem now is that there is need for additional resources in that function in the Department.

Deputies asked what is our mission. Educate Together is an educational charity. It is a company limited by guarantee and as such is bound by its memorandum and articles. The memorandum and articles of Educate Together oblige us to work for a future in which the option of multi-denominational education is as freely available to people in Ireland as any other option. The memorandum and articles also oblige us and place a legal charge upon the boards of management of schools we operate to provide equality of access to all children, irrespective of their social, cultural or religious background, and to promote a multi-denominational educational programme in which children of all social and religious backgrounds are equally cherished and respected in the operation of the school. There is a legal obligation on the board of management to be child centred in its decision making, to provide a full programme countering gender stereotyping in all its forms and to run the school in a democratic fashion while positively affirming the professional role of teachers.

These are charges on the board to which, under the Education Act, the board must by law adhere. Because this is a modern transparent structure the charter is available. It is a single A4 page on the original information packs we provided to every member of the committee. It is transparent and subject to all the rigours of company law. If a majority of members of our company want to change any decision taken by our board of directors this can be done. It is the antithesis of the old hierarchical structure of patronage which is, effectively, an unrepresentative structure. Our mandate comes from our memorandum and articles. Both Jane McCarthy and I are straightforward employees of this company. Marion Fitzpatrick is a director elected on an annual basis and has to be re-elected annually at the annual general meeting of the company.

Ms McCarthy will refer to the difficulties in the building programme.

While it is to be welcomed that there is a written form of criteria for the building programme, we have noticed that the criteria for the current building programme do not take into account the provision of diversity in the education system. Under band one, it takes into account the roof overhead scheme. The most urgent criteria include whether a school is needed in an area. The provision of diversity in primary education is not mentioned in any of the other four bands and that is one of our concerns.

I am the development officer and I work with groups of parents. It would be remiss of us to leave today without transmitting to this committee of elected representatives the feeling of, it is more than outrage, it is anger, among parents. Both parents who are already in the system and those whose children are about to enter the system are angry at what they perceive to be the unfairness of the system. Because they are exercising their constitutional right to choose, they are then forced into a position where they have to undergo rigorous tests and burdens and at this stage it is nearly an endurance to found and develop a school. That does not stop on 1 September 2003 or whenever the school opens. If we are to believe the Department, that situation will continue for the next seven to ten years.

Mr. Rowe mentioned the burdens being placed on principals and other teachers in Educate Together schools and in any developing school. Huge burdens are being placed on parents and on teachers to take on a huge task which many would believe is not within their remit. The Department of Education and Science should display more initiative on these issues.

Mr. Rowe

Deputy Gogarty asked us to nominate three areas on which to concentrate. The first is that there should be an early initiative from the building and planning unitab initio the project. There should not be a continuance of the system whereby the building unit only becomes involved after the school has served its probationary period in a scout den or an Order of Malta hall or a converted stables, as was the case for the new school in Tralee and which was mentioned by the Minister. The early initiative would ensure that the process could become a planned delivery of State accommodation and facilities for necessary schools. We are not arguing that schools should be created and, as the Minister said, that there should be a mix of school types at every crossroads in the country. A fundamental issue is that there is a complete qualitative difference between a school that operates under the type of charter such as ours and a school that operates under a charter which obliges it to provide specific facilities for a particular religious community.

There must be a discrete budget for new schools. Ms McCarthy mentioned the welcome transparency in the criteria for the building programme for projects in education. The Minister is to be congratulated for that initiative. However, unless it is a recognised school, it will not be on that list. In the greater Dublin area there are possibly ten urgently required schools which are not on the radar in terms of the building programme.

There needs to be an urgent reassessment of the basket of measures for new and developing schools and how the Department's grant systems interface with developing schools. We are simply burning out the most valuable asset of the education system, new, young, determined, motivated principal teachers who should be delivering the ground breaking education to the next generation of children. These teachers are being burnt out with worry.

A classic example is our school in Swords. The school started in 2001 in accommodation rented from a football club. It had a two year lease on the premises and the staff consisted of a principal teacher and three mainstream teachers. Despite delivering a programme which has been recognised by a number of external agencies to be ground breaking and excellent, the principal teacher and the voluntary chair of the board and that group have to date examined 31 potential sites for premises. For the past six months, they have been involved in negotiations with planning authorities, local property developers and the Department and have presented a fantastic development programme for the school which includes a joint campus development with the local gaelscoil. That has become part of the burden of the principal teacher of a developing school. Unless we look after them, we will lose these people. We will be unable to attract this type of dynamic leader. The education system will fail if such people are not retained. These are our areas of priority.

Deputy Enright asked me to convey her apologies to the committee. She is accompanying a deputation to visit a Minister. Deputy Stanton and Senator Fitzgerald had questions which they arranged to have raised by colleagues and I think they were raised in any event.

I think you will accept that the views of committee members are sincerely held, whether you agree with them, and they are generally views that are formed by their own experiences. Educate Together ascribes to an ethos of tolerant liberalism and I subscribe to the same ethos in accommodating the views of members of the committee.

I apologise that I had to leave the room briefly on the same mission as my colleague. I believe that the spiritual development of young people, regardless of their religious beliefs, should be continued in whatever manner. I am heartened by the practice as outlined by Mr. Rowe regarding the recognition for individual spiritual development as opposed to education in religious beliefs. Many social problems emanate from the fact that there has been a deficit of spiritual education within the existing religious ethos schools. Spiritual development is an important dimension of the human person that should be incorporated from an early age. I welcome what has been undertaken by Educate Together.

I thank the group for its presentation and for answering members' questions. It has been a productive meeting and I am sure we will meet again in the future.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.20 p.m. until 11.30 a.m. on Thursday, 10 July 2003.