School Boards of Management: Discussion with Departmental Officials.

I welcome the officials from the Department of Education and Science, Mr. Frank Wyse, assistant secretary; Mr. Tony Dalton, principal officer in the forward planning unit; Mr. Hubert Loftus, principal officer in the teacher allocation and school governance policy section; Ms Teresa McNeill, assistant principal officer in the school governance section; and Mr. Frank Murray, executive chairperson of the Commission on School Accommodation. They are almost permanent residents of this forum at this stage. They have come here today to brief the committee on their current and future plans for restructuring the boards of management of primary and secondary schools. They will also set out their future plans regarding the establishment of new models of secondary schools, specifically Educate Together schools and gaelscoileanna. I ask Mr. Wyse to begin his short opening presentation on both of these issues.

Mr. Frank Wyse

As the Chairman said, two distinct issues — the restructuring of boards of management and the plans for the establishment of new models of schools — are up for discussion. My colleagues on the school governance section deal with the first of the issues. With the permission of the Chair, I will ask Mr. Loftus to address that first item and I will address the second.

Mr. Hubert Loftus

For the benefit of the joint committee, I will briefly outline the composition of boards at primary and post-primary level, the role and responsibilities of boards of management and the range of supports provided to boards of management.

Section 14 of the Education Act 1998 places a duty on the patron of a recognised school for the purposes of ensuring that such a school is managed in a spirit of partnership to a point where practicable.

The composition of a board of management is based on centrally agreed arrangements between the relevant stakeholders. The Department currently has no plans to restructure boards of management of primary or post-primary schools. The composition of boards of management at primary level was last changed in 1997, when it was expanded to provide for the inclusion of community representatives. The term of office for boards of management in primary schools is a four-year period. The current boards of management of primary schools were formed in December 2007 and are next due to change in December 2011. Boards of management at post-primary level are typically for a three-year period. There are some differences in the composition of boards of management between the three sectors at post-primary level and they are set out in more detail in the submission provided to the committee.

In regard to the role and responsibility of boards of management, the Education Act specifies the various duties and functions of a board. The board must manage the school on behalf of the patron for the benefit of the students and their parents and provide or cause to be provided an appropriate education for each student in the school. It must uphold the characteristic spirit of the school and must at all times act in accordance with any Act of the Oireachtas relating to the establishment or operation of the school. Apart from the duties and functions specified in the Education Act, other legislation such as the Education (Welfare) Act 2000, the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004, and employment and equality legislation have placed legal obligations on boards which are the employers of staff in the schools.

There are a range of supports provided for boards. Boards are supported through guidance documentation, advice and training provided by the relevant management bodies and the Department, and also through the work of the school principal, who typically acts as secretary to the board. The work of the management bodies is supported through core funding from the Department which is of the order of €0.8 million per annum at primary level and about €0.6 million per annum at post-primary level.

Mr. Frank Wyse

In relation to the establishment of new models for post-primary schools, especially for Educate Together schools and the gaelcoláiste, as I outlined to the committee on a previous occasion, we are anticipating very significant demographic increases at second level and that will continue at the post-primary level for the foreseeable future. Associated with that is a move towards greater diversity in education. There are policy issues on the process for granting recognition for second level schools which the Department is looking at carefully. The application from Educate Together to establish schools at second level and future plans for the establishment of gaelcoláiste will be looked at in light of the overall position.

The continued success and growth of the gaelscoil sector at primary level has obviously naturally led as well to an increased demand for access to all Irish education at post-primary level in areas of the country where that provision is not readily available. For the information of the committee, the Commission on School Accommodation, and Mr. Murray is here today, published a report in 2004 on the criteria and procedures for establishing and maintaining provision through the medium of Irish in second level schools or in clusters of schools. A number of different approaches can be taken to the gaelscoil sector. That report sets out the commission's recommendations, the plans for second level provision through Irish and the various models of provision that might be appropriate to an area depending on the level of demand and on the long-term viability of any school unit. The Department has a duty to promote second level provision through Irish and it discharges its duty in so far as is practicable and feasible with regard to pupil numbers. This is an issue that we may return to during the course of the discussion.

In recent years the Educate Together movement has been exploring the possibility of expanding its remit. It formally applied to the Department seeking recognition as a patron body in respect of post-primary schools, which it proposes would operate on a multidenominational basis and ethos, similar to the existing range of primary schools. Traditionally the VEC sector has been the provider of multidenominational post-primary education and this is becoming more of a feature of the educational landscape in the rapidly developing areas, where new VEC community colleges are being established which can cater for pupils of all faiths and none. This reflects the growing diversity in the pupil population.

The application by Educate Together to seek recognition as a patron body at second level raises many issues around the provision of multidenominational education, particularly when this is already being delivery quite effectively by the VEC sector. Some of the factors to be considered in assessing applications by Educate Together, and any other body seeking to establish a new model of patronage at second level, include ensuring the protection of the significant State investment, both capital and current, required to commence and maintain post-primary schools. Again, I would emphasise that the establishment of a post-primary school is of a very different order to that of the establishment of a primary school. We are talking about a very significant capital investment in the first instance, in excess of €15 million at current rates, if we are talking about an 800 to 1,000 pupil school. That figure does not include the very substantial site costs associated with provision at second level. Indeed the complexities at post-primary level in relation to curricular provision are very substantially different from what pertains at primary level. These issues are very important to the Department in terms of the Department of Education and Science giving its imprimatur to the establishment of a new model of post-primary education.

I also emphasise and I emphasise this during the course of the debate, that the application from Educate Together cannot purely be considered in isolation. We cannot simply say that we are going to give approval to Educate Together without saying that any group which is capable of demonstrating capacity may apply to the Department for similar recognition. This is the reason that it has taken longer than we would have anticipated.

Let me make another point, Educate Together has published and presented a blueprint for Educate Together second level schools. We have been looking at that very carefully. Educate Together has enunciated principles in terms of establishing its schools. The normal Educate Together criteria is that the school would be multidenominational in character, ensuring that children and young people of all social, cultural and religious backgrounds have equal access and rights within a school, that the school would be co-educational thereby encouraging children and young people to learn to live together, that it would be child centred, respecting the abilities of individual students to learn in unique ways, and that Educate Together would be run on a democratic basis.

My colleague, Mr. Tony Dalton and I met with Mr. Paul Rowe and his colleagues and had a very detailed three-hour discussion on the issues that arise as a result of their understanding of the type of model of education that would be provided. How do the four criteria I mentioned differ from the position that pertains in the existing range of denominational schools, VEC schools and the schools in the community schools sector? There was a sense that the delivery of the curriculum and the demographics would be defining factors. How it might differ from the existing range of post-primary schools is an issue about which we need to be very clear in our minds. The vision outlined by Educate Together is one where students are architects of their own learning. It is a radical move away from the traditional hierarchical structure in Irish second level education and would lead to truly democratic learning communities, empowering teachers and parents to work together towards their educational aims in an atmosphere of equality and respect.

The Department of Education and Science would not quarrel with any of those principles and we hope we inculcate them in the existing range of schools. We have also met the Irish Vocational Education Association and one has to ask if a community college is less democratic. It has a very formal democratic governance structure — perhaps more so than Educate Together. What does "democratic" mean in this context and how is democracy to be exercised?

I am sorry for departing from my prepared statement.

That is actually a welcome approach.

Mr. Frank Wyse

The other question is the demand for this type of education. We have analysed what Educate Together has presented to us. The initial information is in the form of a study by the UCD school of education on the feasibility of opening a second level school by Educate Together. It does not have a publication date but I believe it was published in 2007. The demand level was determined by making contact with parents of children who attended five existing Educate Together schools. The response rate was 46%, which anaylsts feel is a reasonable response. If we are to give approval to Educate Together to establish a school in a rapidly developing area it will have to cater for a minimum enrolment of 800 students, possibly growing to 1,000. The school will have to cater for a broad spectrum of the community and cannot confine itself to particular parental preferences.

Educate Together will not be able to say to people who do not subscribe to its ideology that they can go to a different school. We assess the need for a school on the basis of current and future demographics. We try to be reasonably accurate by amalgamating information from different sources, though demographics are notoriously difficult to forecast. We and the Minister must be satisfied that a school will cater for a broad range of children in the community it represents.

I will depart from my own script. There are two distinct questions. Gaelscoileanna have been mentioned but Educate Together has taken up much of the discussion. This issue is separate from the discussion of how to restructure boards of management. I will allow members to comment on Educate Together first, because the comments made will be fresh in their minds and the script is in front of them. We will return to the question of boards of management and the comments of Mr. Loftus in a half an hour or so.

I thank the representatives from the Department of Education and Science. Mr. Wyse comes before the committee so often that we should give him an appearance fee.

Mr. Frank Wyse

I enjoy the experience.

The feeling is mutual. A former Secretary General of the Department, Dr. Don Thornhill, who will be familiar to many in this room, described two distinct advantages of our post-primary education system. One was the fact that parental choice is real, particularly where there is a large number of post-primary schools to which parents can send their children. The other is that the variety and type of schools on offer are a great strength of the system, on which point I concur with him. Choice puts pressure on schools to up their game regularly because they need the numbers to keep their quota of teachers. Once we lose focus on that we are on a dangerous slippery slope towards only one type of school into which everybody must fit.

The arguments I make for Educate Together are exactly the same as those I will make for the religious voluntary second level schools that are already in existence. There is a feeling in those schools that the Department takes the view that there should only be one model of post-primary provision. Mr. Wyse said that the Department had to be sure Educate Together was no different from other models of provision but the difference with Educate Together is that it is an existing provider of primary education and is recognised as a patron.

The Education Act 1998 makes no distinction on the issue of patronage between primary and post-primary education. Has the Department sought legal advice as to whether it can continue to stall the ambitions, to which there is a constitutional entitlement, of a group of parents who want post-primary provision by Educate Together? It is most unsatisfactory that, 19 months after the application was first made, the Department has still not determined whether it accepts Educate Together as a patron in post-primary education. As it already provides education at primary level we should make a decision on this sooner rather than later.

There are five existing schools in the Lucan area, which is the Chairman's constituency and is a key growth area of the future. There has been a huge bulge in numbers at primary school level and the figures given by Mr. Wyse only two weeks ago show that we will have a greater number in the primary school sector than in 1886 as the birth rate has grown by 37% since 2000. What is the difficulty in accepting one school in an area where there are five existing schools?

Catholic schools point to the fact that the five most recent schools to have been established in north county Dublin are all community schools. What are the objective criteria for determining whether a new post-primary school is to be a voluntary secondary school, a community school or an Educate Together school? There is a view among Catholic schools that they are also being frozen out when it comes to the choice of post-primary education provision.

I thank Deputy Hayes. A vote has been called. I will suspend the meeting at 10.55 a.m. That leaves three minutes for members to get to the Chamber.

Similar to Deputy Hayes, I consider that the Department is stalling on the issue of Educate Together which has a desire to cater for the community at second level and has more than 50 schools around the country. The Department needs to come to a decision quickly on this issue. Is there a bias within the Department and, if so, is it one that is difficult to shift? Certainly the Labour Party favours a pluralist approach to patronage. We have nothing against the VECs per se. In fact, we are great supporters of them and always have been as they do great work around the country. Why does the VEC model have to be at the expense of Educate Together and other patronage?

In terms of the rapidly expanding areas to which the delegation referred in outlining the difficulties for Educate Together and whether all the parents in that area have subscribed to that ideology, is the bar being put too high for Educate Together? There is no uniformity of parent types in the VEC model. I think the bar is put too high in an attempt to make it difficult for Educate Together. One of the other difficulties to which the delegation referred was comparisons between a primary school v. a secondary school, where it was indicated there was a greater complexity involved in dealing with that level. There was reference to capital investment v. primary school and curriculum difficulties. Is it fair to say that is just a comparison between primary and second level but it is not a serious difficulty when one compares one form of second level to another form of second level so those issues are equal for both types of school?

Did Deputy Mary Wallace indicate that she wished to contribute?

When we come back.

I was surprised to see this issue back on the agenda. I would have expected at this stage that the Department would have made a decision on the patronage of an Educate Together model for second level because it has been so clear in its presentations. When listening to Mr. Wyse it was clear to me that he is not clear and still has many doubts about the Educate Together model. The question that occurred to me as I listened to him was whether he had ever observed teaching and learning in an Educate Together primary school and compared it with teaching and learning in the more conventional primary school. There is a huge difference. The role of the teacher is completely different. The teacher is clearly a facilitator of learning in the Educate Together model. The teacher has to relinquish much more control. The pupils guide the learning as much as the teacher. Mr. Wyse is right in saying that in principle all that should happen in the other schools but it does not. He raised an important point that if this model exists, it has to handle 100 to 1,000 pupils and be open to all. It can do that but it is the teachers who have more difficulty as not every teacher can adapt to that style. From experience, I am convinced that pupils can adapt. Many of our second level students are killed in a stultified second level system that is not adapting to their needs so that the democratic model will suit better many of our children. Why is the Department stalling? What are its doubts?

I thank Senator Healy Eames. I will suspend the meeting for ten minutes. I will return promptly as I hope everyone else will.

Sitting suspended at 10.55 a.m. and resumed at 11.05 a.m.

Another vote will be called shortly but there will be plenty of time because the bell rings for ten minutes. The two Senators have contributed already so I shall make my contribution. In the first place I ask Mr. Wyse for a "Yes" or "No" answer and he can respond in detail afterwards.

When he mentioned the 46% response rate, was he talking about the percentage of parents who responded to the survey?

Mr. Frank Wyse

Yes, that is my understanding. We discussed it with Mr. Rowe.

That brings me to my first point. In Palmerston, in my constituency, there was a plebiscite to change the name back to "Palmerstown", as designated in old maps, although on road signs it is spelt "Palmerston". A 60% turnout was needed — it failed by only 2%. With the best will in the world, trying to get a response rate on any matter is a huge task and very difficult. A response rate of 46% is excellent, especially considering that Educate Together's demographic would have a higher ethnic mix than more traditional schools, particularly those in more rural areas. A response rate of 46% is extremely good.

I do not have the figure but I believe the overwhelming majority of the 46% who responded said they would happily send their child to an Educate Together second level school. That must be clarified in the first instance.

I have had some dealings with Educate Together, both as a constituency representative with the Lucan second level Educate Together task force and with the Educate Together national body. We know the organisation formally applied in March 2008 even though it knew the Education Act does not distinguish between primary and second level schools, as Deputy Hayes noted. When this issue was raised first in this committee some two years ago legal advice was cited. I have not heard anything since concerning the legal front and at this stage the matter is more to do with policy.

I was intrigued by Mr. Wyse's contribution regarding the precise concerns the Department now has. Population is one such; a second seems to be whether a broad range of children in the community might be serviced by an Educate Together second level school. It is ironic in a sense. One of the issues we will deal with in January relates to schools with high levels of ethnic students, where the large majority of kids do not have English as a first language. One of the prime examples of this in my constituency is a Catholic school. Unlike schools under the patronage of a church, Educate Together's enrolment policy accepts applications for children from birth. I can only speak of my constituency. In Lucan, no matter where parents are from, one can apply to the local Educate Together school. Some people try to apply when the child is still in the womb, such is the level of popularity. Applications are made from birth, whereas Catholic schools accept enrolment the year before the child is due to start school.

Catholic schools have criteria based on parish demarcation lines. This has caused issues because one parish has 21,000 people and has a junior and senior Catholic school, while two other parishes, with 8,000 people each, have five Catholic schools. There is a major discrepancy there. Catholic minded parents cannot send their children to a Catholic school in south Lucan so their only option is to send their children to an Educate Together school. There is already diversity where people initially preferred a Catholic school but are now sending their kids to an Educate Together school.

When did the division bells start ringing?

Two minutes ago and it is a three-minute vote.

We must suspend and I will come back with more comments after the vote.

Sitting suspended at 11.10 a.m. and resumed at 11.20 a.m.

We resume in public session and I will continue my point on the concern about a broad range of children being covered for school enrolment. I referred to the fact that the school takes in kids whose parents initially preferred a Catholic school. Given the high response rate of 46%, many Catholic parents are happy with the Educate Together ethos and would gladly send their kids to an Educate Together second level school. I suggest the issue is demographics in a broader sense. What is the capacity of an Educate Together school? There are five Educate Together schools in my constituency. I will not name all the schools but, with the exception of Lucan East Educate Together and Esker Educate Together, all of the schools have been established for a while. This is particularly true of Griffeen Educate Together in Lucan. Within a year or two, from a demographic point of view there will be capacity for a second level school in Lucan to provide solely for Educate Together children.

I do not know the exact figure but I understand some 80% or 85% of parents would choose to send their children to an Educate Together second level school. I will not play constituency politics but I do not know of any other Educate Together grouping in the country which has five schools. A number of areas have two. The schools have always shown a willingness to take in children from all religious backgrounds and none.

Deputy Quinn referred to those who have no religious beliefs and would call themselves atheists or agnostics. Whether children are lapsed or devout Catholics or Muslims, other Christian denominations or Hindu, Educate Together covers the multitude, deals with religion in a specific way, covers all the various calendar dates of various faiths and does so in a way which respects all.

I am not saying the Educate Together ethos is better than any other ethos. I do not want to attribute defensiveness to the comments of Mr. Wyse on some schools. Educate Together will try to push the fact that it is democratic, pupil centred and has its own curriculum. Mr. Wyse asked if a community college was less democratic. I agree that it is a different type of democracy but it is still democratic. The VEC system has served us well over the years and there may be need to reform how it operates, but it has done a great service to the State. It is run in a democratic way which is no better or worse than Education Together schools.

The question is whether the Educate Together ethos can translate to second level. I believe it can and there is no difficulty in piloting a school. If one pilots a school pending a final decision, one would be in a position to find out whether it is working. There is nothing to be afraid of in that context.

Some religious schools have turned into community schools. I am sure the legislative powers exist to disband the patronage of a school if it is not performing adequately. Now is the time to take a bold and decisive step and pilot an Educate Together school, see how it works and see if it really is different to the VEC community college model at second level. We can then examine the issues. At this stage the issue is not legal, rather, it is ideological. The IVEA came before the committee. There seems to be an undercurrent of antipathy — I will not go so far as to say prejudice — and a view that these upstarts are trying to infringe on our territory. The issue of choice is crucial. If a Steiner school had capacity to have a second level school, it is something I would favour. There are a number of Steiner schools in the country which serve their communities well. I have visited one in Tallaght which does a great job.

Educate Together is a long-established group. It has built up capability and expertise. Given that a precedent has been set to pilot VECs at primary level, a similar precedent should apply for Educate Together schools to be piloted at second level. People are getting sick and tired of the non-apparent legalistic argument. No legal argument has been put forward to this committee; I do not think one will be and it is not the case that people do not raise it because it is sensitive. It is a purely a policy issue at this stage.

The issues of fear regarding the coverage of children in the community is already being addressed. Catholic children in south Lucan attend Educate Together schools because of bad planning over the years which made sure there were not enough Catholic schools for the children in the area. Educate Together has welcomed everyone and anyone and everyone can apply to its schools from birth. A problem would not arise in giving precedence to Educate Together pupils under the board of management at second level and then open enrolment up to the greater Lucan area like other schools do. There are problems at second level with some community colleges because of ethos. Lucan Community College is still waiting for its extension. It could expand to include more of the south Lucan area if it had the places. Adamstown is opening up, which will have a huge ethnic mix. There is an existing site in Clonburris for a community second level school and another site is available which would be ideal for a second level Educate Together school.

I am pushing Lucan as a site because I am a constituency Deputy, but also because there are five Educate Together schools there. Why not pilot a school in Lucan? Alternatively, such a pilot could take place in an area in the country which is better suited, if such a place is found. We should not drag people along for spurious reasons. To be honest, the reasons outlined by Mr. Wyse are spurious. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The school should be established and we could see if it is different and if it works. If it is does not work it should be closed. That can be done and it will be done.

I listened to the debate from my office. There is a meeting of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement shortly so everybody is trying to do several things together.

I am very interested in new concepts for new schools. There is a gaelscoil in my area, to which I referred when the delegates came before the committee previously. It has good, but not sufficient, numbers. It is a matter of time before it will seek to establish a second level school. The Chairman proposed to conduct a pilot scheme because five Educate Together schools were in the locality, but referred to another school which could not get an extension. In my area one school, Carndonagh school, was split into schools, Carndonagh and Moville. People in Moville were promised the same facilities as Carndonagh received. There was not a different ethos and it was not a pilot scheme, it was another school.

The pressure on all budgets to provide for what is in place is such that we have not yet fulfilled the promises made to the established school without adding in new dimensions. I can see both sides of the issue. I can see why people want a new opportunity and ethos, but the existing structure is creaking under the pressure of the number of people. Investment is going into schools everywhere.

The Chairman said a pilot project should be established, but one cannot ignore the fact that having a pilot project for four schools from any branch of education will have a knock-on effect on existing schools. If pupils are attending the existing schools, there they will remain, and such schools may already be on a programme for expansion, building or refurbishment. If one attends a school with a new concept, one cannot establish a school on its own because if pupils attend it they will not attend existing schools. The priority is spread.

It is a case of the bread with the jam, and at the moment the jam is covering the bread but we are trying to introduce new variations on bread. I do not know on which side of the argument I come down on this issue. A gaelscoil in my area is currently not fulfilling the criteria and will want to establish another school to carry on its new ethos. Existing schools cannot be facilitated with the subject choice which they were promised. If we put another choice in place without being able to sustain existing schools, the problem may be that everything becomes unsustainable. Everything should be able to progress and schools should not be knocking each other.

I know the structures of boards of management are not the subject of the meeting, but they are an issue.

We can deal with that issue later.

I have to go to another meeting. I have only one comment. I have been involved in boards of management where people within the school system and the boards have made life extremely difficult in terms of getting answers and make the board work as a board. Any restructuring must provide a very clear and straightforward process for boards to be able to deal with awkward people or difficult situations. At the moment the course from starting off for amateurs to the point at which action can be taken seems to be years and very few people have the stomach to keep at it for that length of time. I could talk about the individual case, but on the policy end we need a process for dealing with difficult situations also.

The Senator mentioned not being able to make up her mind. In my constituency there are many developing areas with strategic development zones where land is already set aside. It will not be a case of choice overcoming and taking away from other schools because there is a demographic time bomb and the school places are needed one way or another.

The Chairman mentioned that the school places are needed one way or another, which is the critical issue and goes back to what Senator Keaveney said about bread with the jam. The issue is the provision of places needed in an area. Deputy Brian Hayes referred to 19 months after the application was made. Was that for a particular location or just Educate Together's application to be a patron?

The initial application by Educate Together for patronage at second level was 19 months old.

Was that for a particular location?

No. It was to be recognised as a patron.

We have been through much in our area regarding the right thing to do. We have gone through seven new primary and three new post primary schools. The issue before us at all times was the critical mass issue and the location. The Chairman mentioned that because of bad planning Catholic children were going to the Educate Together school in the Lucan area. We do not just want to repeat that at secondary level and simply build a school which will be that model and even if they do not like it the students will have to go there.

We are talking about Educate Together children also.

There is a separate point about dealing with an ethos to cover the entire community.

We do not want to repeat that now. We investigated combining the VEC and the diocese schools together. That worked very well for us. We then investigated combining VEC, the diocese and gaelscoil together. We tried looking at having a gaelscoil and an English-speaking school in the same school, but it just did not work. The model is an issue first when one determines the need for the school in the area and then one needs to look at the other issues of the critical mass of students who would go to that school. I was somewhat concerned when Mr. Wyse mentioned 46%. Was that 46% of people——

It was a 46% response rate.

Did you clarify that, Chairman?

Yes, I clarified that.

Was it that 46% of parents with children attending Educate Together primary schools would send their children to post primary Educate Together schools?

No, they responded in the first place. A much higher level said they would prefer an Educate Together second level school.

Perhaps Mr. Wyse might clarify the matter.

Mr. Frank Wyse

It relates to the figure in the initial feasibility study which was done by Educate Together. Its approach would have been to send a questionnaire to the parents of children at five primary Educate Together schools. The response rate from the parents of children attending those five schools was 46%. In terms of the issue involved 46% is quite a good response rate and is sufficient for the study to have drawn quite strong conclusions.

Was the study done by Educate Together itself?

Mr. Frank Wyse

This was a study done by Educate Together under the Trinity College education department effectively. It was quite a useful and detailed study in fact.

I have attended meetings in the new communities in my area and I have seen people puzzled over the right patronage and the right place to send their children. I have seen parents trying to make difficult choices there and then. The most important thing is to ensure we are covering the greater mass of people with a school place that is acceptable to them. That must be the first priority.

I am concerned that as Mr. Wyse has pointed out it costs €15 million to build a school. One such school opened in our area this year. It is necessary to have the 800 pupils who are committed to attending that school. That is probably why the Department's deliberations are taking this time. On behalf of the taxpayer it is important that the Department would take time to make the right decision in this regard. Regardless of whether it is Lucan or Meath, if the Department is to build a €15 million school and put teachers into it there are two key issues. One is dealing with the curriculum at second level which is so different from the curriculum at primary level. The other is the critical mass of 800 pupils.

We believed that it would be possible to go into this new building and teach through both English and Irish in the same building. We subsequently discovered that was not possible when dealing with the critical mass. We were wrong in thinking we could have a gaelscoil and English-speaking school in the same building. It is possible to be wrong when getting into the practicalities at second level. Second level is different from primary level. At primary level the 27 or 28 children are in the same room and there is movement from subject to subject.

The two questions for the Department relate to the expansive second-level curriculum and the critical mass of 800 pupils in any area. I am not critical of the Department for taking this time. We need to get it right for the overall population and ensure that 800 pupils desire the type of education we are providing in that area, rather than make the mistakes made at primary level.

I question the practicalities of proposing such a model for areas outside the greater Dublin area and areas of larger population. If it eventually is established in Lucan, is that the model that would be proposed for the rest of Ireland? The ideal number of students of between 800 and 1,000 for the development of a new school in any centre is unlikely to be replicated in any other part of the country other than perhaps Cork or Galway city. It would seriously infringe on existing catchment areas of low population and could encroach on existing structures that are in place. If there was to be an Educate Together school or a second level gaelscoil in places around the country there will be unnecessary duplication and fragmentation with the pupils being drawn one way or the other. Approximately eight years ago there was great tension — although perhaps not in urban areas — because of the pupil-teacher ratio and the possibility that many jobs would be lost in certain schools if there was a move to another area.

It is a pity that it is not possible to respond to the Educate Together group that is promoting the Lucan proposal. I ask Mr. Wyse or Mr. Loftus to respond to this matter. In other areas and perhaps in this area there will be tension between VECs and Educate Together for patronage of schools. That is the last thing that education in Ireland needs at this time and it distracts from the focus of delivering a proper education. Mr. Wyse referred to the Educate Together blueprint. I am concerned at the idea of the pupils leading the curriculum and where that fits within the structures that currently exist with regard to curriculum changes either in subject content or proposed subjects. That would have serious consequences in the practical delivery of education. If there are five primary schools in a particular area, it is obvious that the Department should respond in a positive way to the continuing needs of the pupils in those schools.

We are talking about Educate Together on the one hand and about school places on the other hand. While school places are important, it should not be a question of providing any school place. The Educate Together movement has a far more pointed need. All the literature and other evidence suggests that the overriding concern is the quality of teaching and learning. That is what matters. It is the key issue.

Hear, hear.

The quality of each teacher in a school matters in that context. The ethos of a school matters significantly for many parents. I take Deputy Wallace's point that choice can be very confusing for parents. I am making a number of points. While we need to respect diversity, we need to ensure that the quality of teaching and learning is the key factor at all times. That is most likely to happen when kids have a say in their learning. That seems to make a big difference to the extent to which they buy into their learning. The Educate Together model is predisposed to that. I do not suggest that it does not happen in other school models as well.

Mr. Frank Wyse

I would not like the committee to form the impression that the Department of Education and Science is somehow inherently against Educate Together.

It appears that way.

Mr. Frank Wyse

That is patently not true. I have had a long and fruitful engagement with Educate Together over many years. I emphasise that the vast majority of new primary schools that are being established are Educate Together schools. The Department recognises that there is a need for these schools. They are very well run, by and large, although they have their problems, as all schools do. They will be maintained and retained as part of the educational landscape. They will increase in number.

We have had a debate on patronage, etc. The Educate Together movement is here to stay. We fully support it. We have put our money where our mouth is by providing for substantial capital investment in new Educate Together schools. While the Department does not have a problem per se with Educate Together, it is concerned that the sustainability of diversity at post-primary level may become an issue. We have to ensure that the investment we make stands up over a long period of time. When we approve Educate Together schools, that approval will not be reversed lightly. Serious issues would need to arise for that to happen. The type of approval we give cannot be confined to a group like Educate Together. If the Department accepts the basic thesis that there is room for other patron bodies, a process must be put in place to allow various bodies to apply.

They have to meet the Department's criteria.

Mr. Frank Wyse

Yes. That is the point we have to come back to. What are the criteria? Many of the issues in this regard hinge on the criteria. It has been suggested that the Department is stalling or dragging its feet. Educate Together's blueprint, which was launched on 18 June last, contained the most detailed enunciation to date of how Educate Together perceives the operation of a post-primary school under its patronage. We have absolutely no dispute with many of the issues raised in the blueprint, which is based on sound educational principles. It contains innovations that have not yet been adopted in the Irish system, but are based on internationally accepted research and have been demonstrated to work internationally. As we take the next step towards the practical reality of establishing a school, we have to ensure all of these plans stand up together. My colleague, Mr. Dalton, will comment on some of the issues we raised with Educate Together. The approach proposed by Educate Together in its blueprint seems to involve curricular innovation in its proposed new school. The blueprint states specifically that it will not stream pupils, for example. My colleague, Mr. Murray, will comment further on this issue. How will that work in practice? We have no contention with certain other specific issues, such as Educate Together's practical decision not to have a uniform in the school. That is not an issue for us.

Senator Healy Eames spoke about the delivery of the curriculum. We are concerned with the quality of education that will be provided. The Department's first priority is to ensure there are sufficient places for all children. Its second priority is to ensure that the education provided, regardless of the system to which we give our imprimatur, is of a high quality. It is obvious that our inspectorate has issues in that regard.

I will ask my colleague, Mr. Dalton, to cover the legal issues that were raised by Deputy Hayes. The Deputy used the word "assimilation" when he suggested that we have a lovely bureaucratic desire to provide the same type of education throughout the country. I do not accept that. We support and will continue to support the independent voluntary secondary sector.

How many new voluntary secondary schools have been established over the last ten years?

Mr. Frank Wyse

One.

Mr. Frank Wyse

The important point in that regard is that there are issues with the formalisation of the process of establishing secondary schools. Up to now, our process has involved responding to requests for the establishment of schools. Many community colleges have been established with dual patronage following a process of agreed amalgamation involving religious congregations and VECs.

I am talking about brand new schools on greenfield sites.

Mr. Frank Wyse

If we get an application from a voluntary secondary school for a brand new school on a greenfield site, we will consider it. We have not refused such an application.

Am I right in saying that the last five approvals in County Dublin have all involved community colleges?

Mr. Frank Wyse

Yes.

Not one of them was a voluntary secondary school, despite the applications that were received.

Mr. Frank Wyse

There has been no indication, apart from the Educate Together——

Has the Department received applications for voluntary secondary schools in the period referred to by Deputy Hayes?

Mr. Frank Wyse

Yes.

Mr. Tony Dalton

We have received applications for voluntary secondary schools quite recently. Decisions were taken on five community colleges, which have been mentioned, on foot of applications that were received from VECs.

Mr. Frank Wyse

It is only in quite recent times that the Catholic hierarchy has approached us to discuss the non-establishment of voluntary secondary schools. It was simply not an issue until quite recently.

Time is short. We all have a lot of questions. Those of us on this side also have a responsibility to be as brief as possible. Mr. Wyse said in his submission that the Department will respond formally to Educate Together as quickly as possible.

Mr. Frank Wyse

Yes.

Can Mr. Wyse put a timeframe on that? Will the Department form a view on whether Educate Together will be accepted as a patron before such a formal response is issued?

Mr. Frank Wyse

Yes. Mr. Dalton will speak about the first issue, patronage, which is not the main issue. The Deputy also raised the legal issue of functions relating to patronage. I will ask Mr. Dalton to explain that too. It is a view that Educate Together may establish as a matter of policy. The Department will say "Yes" or "No" to the specific applications in Lucan and Waterford as quickly as possible.

What does Mr. Wyse mean by "as quickly as possible"?

Mr. Frank Wyse

I cannot give an exact date.

Is it one year? Six months?

Mr. Frank Wyse

No. As I said to Mr. Rowe at a recent meeting, our intention is to try to formalise the decision within a matter of weeks rather than months.

Mr. Wyse said he had concerns about curriculum delivery at second level Educate Together schools. He also said the organisation was against streaming but the evidence from all the highest performing systems across the world shows that streaming has a negative effect. Does the Department make a distinction between streaming and banding? Banding involves children naturally streaming themselves into honours level and pass level.

Mr. Frank Wyse

That question was not raised.

It is a question Mr. Wyse needs to put to Educate Together.

Mr. Frank Wyse

The purpose of the meeting——

It was a three-hour meeting.

Mr. Frank Wyse

——was to elucidate certain issues relating to the practicalities of Educate Together operating such a school.

It needs to be advanced. The fact that Educate Together is not in favour of streaming is positive but it would be negative if children were not allowed to band themselves according to subject preference.

Mr. Frank Wyse

We want to ensure the quality of the education delivered in a particular school, whether that quality is achieved by streaming or otherwise. Our minds are open on the matter.

It is clear that the Department is in doubt.

Mr. Frank Wyse

We want to ensure that the approach works in practice.

Surely streaming is not the fundamental issue. If the Department offered to provide a school but set certain conditions, Educate Together would not turn it down. Is the question of streaming not a red herring?

Mr. Frank Wyse

We only had a two-minute discussion on this matter over the course of the three-hour meeting.

What about the legal issue?

Mr. Tony Dalton

There is no prevarication on the legal issue. We had to get legal advice to determine what the Minister's powers were over patronage. The Act does not make any distinction between recognised patrons at primary or post-primary level. Patrons who were in existence when the Act commenced were recognised as patrons while new patrons have had to apply since then. A patron has no standing apart from its standing in respect of a school so there is an inconsistency in the Act in that regard.

Does the fact that the Department has accepted Educate Together as a patron body at primary level give the organisation a legal right to become a provider at second level?

Mr. Tony Dalton

No. The legal advice is only that a patron is the applicant for a new school, whether it is primary or post-primary.

Mr. Frank Murray

I have great time for Educate Together and have always admired its work at primary level. Going into second level is a significant change and requires an awful lot of preparation and work. It was stated that Educate Together would not stream children but that is inaccurate, because all children have their respective gifts and the role of a school is to enable children to realise those gifts. I was taught by Bryan McMahon, who exemplified that principle and was an icon in educational terms. Children have a variety of gifts and to put children into a stream for which they are not able demeans their self esteem. A lot of learning needs to be done before somebody can take on the onerous duties of a second-level school.

I was principal of a community school for a number of years and was general secretary of all the community and comprehensive schools. I taught in two jurisdictions and lectured in three universities but I still have a lot of learning to do. I have great respect for what Educate Together has done at primary level but second level is a significant change and requires a lot of preparation.

Is Mr. Murray suggesting we first teach Educate Together how to operate a school for ten years? The only way to do it is to let it begin and set down rules and guidelines.

Mr. Frank Murray

I am not suggesting that at all. The Chairman is putting words into my mouth. Work should be done to put together a paper on how Educate Together might approach teaching and learning. The statement that second level Educate Together schools do not stream does students a disservice because not every child can cope in a mixed ability setting.

Mr. Murray has made a very important point. Did the discussion explore whether Educate Together agreed with banding? Children need to decide at the end of first year whether they will do honours or pass level maths, based on their ability. This is a bigger issue than can be discussed in a two-minute conversation. It is reasonable to suggest that a paper be put together on teaching and learning. Educate Together is so excited about its mission that I am sure it would be happy to assist in that.

It is impractical to suggest that there should not be streaming in an ordinary school. It is impossible to bring very good students and less able students to a high standard in that scenario. The descriptions of how such schools work are beautiful on paper but very difficult to achieve in practice.

Mr. Wyse said there was no comprehensive conversation on the issue and that it was not a major barrier.

Mr. Frank Wyse

The Chairman mentioned the possibility of a pilot school. We are not averse to pilots and people say there are more in the Department of Education and Science than there are in Aer Lingus.

It is more like an autopilot.

Mr. Frank Wyse

A pilot would have to be for a six-year cycle and we would want to be sure that, for the children involved, the education was of a very high standard.

Mr. Tony Dalton

I am not sure the Chairman will welcome a response to the question on Lucan. If Educate Together has five well-attended primary schools in the area there is a logic to opening a post-primary school. Our difficulty with the suggestion of a pilot in Lucan is that, with the opening of Adamstown Community College, there are now five post-primary schools in the area, with a capacity of some 4,000. Another community college is planned for Clonburris and that will further increase capacity. There is currently sufficient capacity at post-primary level, though some of the schools might not fly the right flag for some parents. We have made significant investment in post-primary provision in Lucan and more is envisaged.

A second level timebomb is set to go off by 2011, even with a school in Clonburris. Lucan south secondary school action group has done great work in that respect. If the economy recovers and Adamstown begins to be built, then the Adamstown schools that are acting as an overspill will not be able to provide that option any longer. In that context it will be evident that an additional second level school is needed on the site that is already designated through a vote of the local council and through the strategic development zone. It is not a question of whether there will be one next September but it is the principle of the issue and an acknowledgment that the demographics are in favour of more schools and given that there are five Educate Together schools.

Mr. Frank Wyse

Yes.

I did not want to focus on my area too much but it is the area where there are five Educate Together schools. I propose to move on to Mr. Loftus and the issue of boards of management. I appreciate you are busy people and the time has been taken up with Educate Together. On the issue of any plans to restructure boards of management the Department said it has no plans but I would be interested to hear some comments and questions from members.

The suggestion made by Mr. Frank Murray was excellent and was supported by members. I presume we are all agreed that is a great idea.

More discussion is required but the issues that need to be ironed out are not fundamental in the sense that the Department has the right to say what the rules are and Educate Together has the right to refuse. That is the way it will be and I acknowledge what Mr. Murray and Mr. Wyse have said. It is a pity we do not have all day to talk about it.

That would be a fundamental issue in the education of the 800 pupils in the school because that is a hugely important issue.

Ultimately a decision will be made. Educate Together will either come to a consensus or say it is not interested.

It is a fundamental issue.

It is a fundamental issue. I do not think that is an overriding issue in the wider context but we do not have any more time for it.

We are all agreed that the development of that issue, as suggested by Mr. Murray——

Can Mr. Murray respond in 30 seconds.

Mr. Frank Murray

The pamphlet, which is excellent, would not stand up to a rigorous scrutiny in the context of implementation. It is doing Educate Together a slight disservice because of the high principles it purports to put forward, which I respect totally. There is a big difference between running a first level school and a second level school. I genuinely believe that the secret of running a good new second level school is the preparation that goes into the selection of the staff and the principal operating under the board. There is a huge amount of work to be done in that area. As one who started more schools than anybody else around here in the context of the community sector, we spend weeks, months and years working on getting people to come together to discuss the whole issue, to plan what they want and to put that forward to the Department for consideration.

We have to support this sound sense issue.

Mr. Frank Murray

Without strong preparation it just will not work.

It is a fundamental question of whether it is dragged out as in a meeting every six months for the next five years or whether we have a week long discussion where we go through the fundamental issues and see if it can be ironed out.

Mr. Frank Wyse

Just to bring the issue to a conclusion from our point of view. Obviously these are issues which will be subsequent to a decision. The first is a decision in principle. Are we going to go——

Yes, in principle.

Mr. Frank Wyse

That is something we intend to get a decision on very quickly.

The Department will accept that the principle of an Educate Together second level school precedes the minutiae of whether——

Mr. Frank Wyse

Absolutely. Obviously a good deal of assistance would have to be given to any group that wants to proceed in a new case with this option of post primary school.

Thank you, Mr. Wyse. On the issue of boards of management I call Senator Healy Eames.

On the issue of boards of management I have a question about the training of same. The submission states that boards of management are supported through guidance documentation advice and training. I have been on five, six or seven boards of management and I have not seen that training. With respect, one is aware of the composition of boards of management. There are people from all different walks of life, many with no background in education. Naturally, people give way to the authority on a day by day basis in terms of the hands-on experience. That is fine until there is a lawsuit, perhaps around enrolment policy or section 29 appeals or the Equal Status Act and suddenly everybody's role on that board becomes very important. I have seen this happen. If training is being provided when and where is it happening? If so, I do not believe it is adequate. I would like an answer on that question. I apologise that I have to leave.

Does Deputy Wallace wish to contribute?

I have an issue on the boards of management. The response was that there were no plans.

Mr. Hubert Loftus

There are no current plans.

There are no current plans. Having had previous dealings with the Department, it could have a plan tomorrow. Therefore, it was correct in saying there are no current plans. Is there even a spark of a plan? Is something being worked on that perhaps boards of management need to be restructured? I will give one example which relates to the wider issue of school ethos. In my area there could be a Catholic school for a Catholic catchment area deciding to draw the line geographically against Catholic children from another area, even though there is a huge pressing demographic need and they have to go outside the town. There is also an issue of ethnic diversity in getting the balance right in terms of demographics but boards of management are all powerful. The boards of management, the patrons, have too much power in many instances. Are there any plans to review the Education Act to look at the powers of boards of management so that where there is a pressing need in the interests of the child or the interests of the community the Minister has more power to intervene in enrolments?

Mr. Hubert Loftus

Senator Healy Eames raised the issue of training of boards of management. That is something the Department does primarily through the routes of the various management bodies. I have not been around as long as Mr. Frank Murray who would have known what happened in the past but certainly in recent years and particularly since the new boards of management came into play at primary level in December 2007, there has been a much more focused and organised approach to training than there would have been in the past, to revolve around some of the key modules about child protection guidelines, financial management, the board as a corporate entity, the appointment procedures and legal issues. It is done in modules, largely during evenings or Saturdays to best suit the needs of members of boards of management to fit into their timeframe.

Is that also for parents' representatives on the boards?

Mr. Hubert Loftus

Absolutely, it is for all board members. It is much more organised than in the past and it is a matter to which the Department is committed.

How have those sessions been and have they been evaluated? Do board members feel more empowered?

Mr. Hubert Loftus

I do not deal directly with the training which is channelled through the management bodies but it is made available for all boards of management and is actively encouraged among the various management groups. The management bodies are there to guide and support the boards of management if they have issues. They have good guidance in place. At primary level, in our governance area, we do not have an army of staff, it would not even be a battalion; it is only a handful of staff.

It is a very subtle area. Sometimes it is very important that board members who are not actively involved in the daily running of the school are empowered to ask the questions to elicit the right information.

Mr. Hubert Loftus

Yes.

On the other hand I have complaints from some second level schools around the country whereby what is called a nosey or over-intrusive board of management member is telling teachers how to teach.

Mr. Hubert Loftus

Yes.

I will not say there needs to be clear demarcation lines but it is around that whole issue, the subtlety, knowledge and respect.

Mr. Hubert Loftus

I fully accept the point as valid. The improvements made in training were timed to coincide with the changeover of boards of management at primary level. Certainly more needs to be done. That is the focus and the Department is committed to doing that. The position has improved.

The Chairman mentioned broader issues about governance and so on. He will be aware from the recently revised programme for Government that it contains a commitment to examine how best school governance systems can evolve to better include parents and students in decision making in schools and develop——

How does that equate with "no current plans"?

Mr. Hubert Loftus

There are no current plans in respect of the composition of boards of management.

If more students were involved the issue of having a student representative on the board of management would arise.

Mr. Hubert Loftus

Yes. That is the answer to the question. The programme also contains plans to develop a new regulatory framework for school enrolment. As of now, schools have their own enrolment policy and the focus of this commitment in the programme for Government will be on creating fairness and transparency in those policies.

That would be most helpful because schools have to make difficult choices and while they feel for the parents and children they have to draw the line somewhere. If the system was more uniform it would help.

Mr. Hubert Loftus

The Department is conscious of the outcome of recent section 29 cases in which it was established that enrolment policies are solely within the parameters of the school. We are trying to give greater guidance and consistency so that there is fairness for all schools.

Will it go so far as to require legislative change?

Mr. Hubert Loftus

The commitment in the programme for Government is for a regulatory framework.

There will be guidelines and regulations but maybe the Education Act 1998 needs to be changed.

Mr. Hubert Loftus

It could be done by regulation under the Act. If, following discussion and consultation, it is decided that new legislation is required the Department would look at that.

Mr. Frank Murray

The National Parents Council runs very good courses preparing parents to sit on boards of management. I have attended one or two and they are very impressive.

Does it want more money?

Mr. Frank Murray

It will get more money and the courses have made a huge difference to the ethos and climate of the schools.

I apologise for the various interruptions and thank the delegates for their frank responses to all the questions raised. They are welcome to become permanent members of the joint committee.

The joint committee adjourned at 12.15 p.m. until Thursday, 3 December 2009.