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Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 24 Nov 1998

Vol. 157 No. 6

Education (No. 2) Bill, 1997: Committee Stage (Resumed).

We have agreed section 10. We now move to section 11.

Mr. Ryan

I did not agree section 10 because, when you put the question, I asked you, a Chathaoirligh, about adjourning the House.

My understanding was that we had agreed section 10. However, in deference to Senators who wish to speak on it, I will presume there was a misunderstanding and allow a debate on it.


Question again proposed: "That section 10 stand part of the Bill."

Mr. Ryan

I appreciate your generosity, Sir. I did not want to be argumentative, although it is my nature as the Leader knows.

Does the Minister have a definition of a viable school? Are there criteria by which the concept of viability is measured or is it a local matter depending on circumstances? Could I look under the Freedom of Information Act, for example, for the criteria the Department uses to assess viability?

We have criteria for the recognition and establishment of a school. We normally grant provisional recommendation which is followed by permanent sanction and recognition. The school accommodation committee which was formed over a year and a half ago has compiled a report on a new process of school recognition. We envisage moving to a much faster school recognition process so that people will not have to wait five or six years. The Minister may introduce regulations from time to time to change the criteria for recognition of schools, but that would be done only after consultation with all the partners.

The criteria for a viable school seem to relate exclusively to the number of students attending or likely to attend the school. How does that relate to primary schools in the vicinity of a Gaelscoil? There is a perception that primary schools might lose pupils if a Gaelscoil is established. Are other schools in the general hinterland part of the criteria?

Section 10(4) states that the "Minister may from time to time designate a place to be a centre for education". Why has the Minister included that in a section which deals with schools? He pointed out that a centre for education does not come within the Bill's definition of a school. Centres for education should be dealt with in other legislation. Is a centre for education different from a VEC college? A centre for education provides adult, continuing or vocational education or training. If the Minister establishes further centres for education, will they be stand alone centres or attached to vocational education committees, or will they be part of a new dispensation?

The school accommodation committee involved all the partners which represented Gaelscoileanna, multi-denominational and denominational schools, the Department, parents, teacher unions, etc. The idea was to try to develop a common system of recognition. Parents have a right to choose under the Constitution the education of their choice. We are, in the context of the school accommodation committee report which has yet to be accepted and put in place, endeavouring to put in place a local community consultation process before a school is established so that those who wish to establish a certain type of school will take due cognisance of the impact it may have on other schools in the area. We are assessing that report at present.

Until now, the position was that if the Gaelscoil attained a certain number of students in one year, it justified and merited provisional recognition and that over time permanent sanction was given if the numbers were high enough to merit permanent viability. In other words, the school will develop and generate sufficient numbers to render it viable in the future. At present, a school must have 20 pupils to start with. However, that could change if the school accommodation report is implemented.

As regards a centre for education, we felt it would be useful, for the purpose of the legislation, to insert it in a section which deals with the recognition of a school or the recognition or designation of a centre. A school could over time become a centre for education. We have seen how second level schools have changed to become centres for further education. Youthreach is a centre of education. We intend to develop further multiplex centres in which a range of education provisions will be provided under one roof.

Mr. Ryan

Can I take it all fee paying secondary schools are recognised schools? Presumably all schools at which the full curriculum is being taught with a view to sitting a State examination are recognised schools. Will all existing schools be recognised by this section and not have to apply for recognition?

The section covers all existing schools.

Mr. Ryan

I note that in future if a school applies for recognition the Minister must be satisfied that it complies with health, safety and building standards. Is he satisfied that all currently recognised schools comply with those standards?

I would not be satisfied if a batch of files existed from the fire officers or health and safety inspectors to the effect that they were not. I assure the Senator that unprecedented amounts of capital funding — £117 million this year — are being spent on capital projects at primary and secondary level. Not all schools comply with health and safety regulations. That is a personal observation, I may be wrong. The primary focus is on our obligation in terms of health and safety issues or fire safety. Local authorities issue fire safety certificates and a range of legislation is in place to deal with those matters. We had a 40 per cent increase in capital for the primary sector last year. We have gone from £27 million in the 1997 budget to £55 million this year for capital projects and £32 million in 1997 to £59 million this year in terms of second level capital. Those are significant increases. I cannot put my hand on my heart and say every school meets all the safety regulations. I visited a school in Wexford this week and was appalled at the conditions there. The Department is not at fault; it took 12 months for the relevant VEC to appoint a design team which had been sanctioned in January.

Question put and agreed to.
Section 11 agreed.
Question proposed: "That section 12 stand part of the Bill."

Mr. Ryan

I congratulate the Minister because, under section 12(5), he is allowed to spend money. I do not think the Minister for Finance has been mentioned.

Question put and agreed to.

Amendments Nos. 29, 31 and 32 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.

I move amendment No. 29:

In page 15, between lines 42 and 43, to insert the following new subsection:

"(3) The functions of the Chief Inspector shall be—

(a) to manage and co-ordinate the activities of Inspectors so as to maximise output,

(b) to assist and support Inspectors in the discharge of their functions,

(c) to take direction from the Minister in relation to policy matters,

(d) to report to and advise the Minister,

(e) to prepare and present to the Minister by November 1st each year, an annual report on the Inspectorate and the Minister shall, with or without amendment, lay the Annual Report of the Chief Inspector before both Houses of the Oireachtas on the first sitting day of the following year,

(f) to ensure that the needs of people with disabilities involved in or seeking access to the education system are addressed, and

(g) to ensure that the needs of the educationally disadvantaged are addressed".

This amendment is an attempt to insert a new subsection which would give fresh functions to a chief inspector. While the Minister refers to the chief inspector and inspectors collectively, he only provides responsibilities and functions in relation to the inspector. I invite him to provide functions for the chief inspector. Obviously, a chief inspector has a superior role to an ordinary inspector and that should be specified. The Minister should specify that his or her role is to co-ordinate and manage the activities of the inspectors, assist and support the inspectors, take direction from the Minister in relation to policy matters, communicate with the inspectors and report to the Minister. There should also be a responsibility on such person to provide an annual report from the inspectorate. As we refer in all areas of responsibility to the needs of special education and disabilities, such person should have a particular role in that regard. Finally, such person should ensure the needs of the educationally disadvantaged are addressed. That would be a valuable role for a chief inspector. I seek to expand the functions of the inspectorate as outlined to include specific roles and responsibilities.

That is already provided for in the Bill under the functions of the inspector.

It does not specify who carries out those functions.

It does. Section 13, following amendments in the other House, states that on the initiative of the inspector, he or she shall visit recognised schools and centres of education; evaluate the organisation and operation of those schools and centres; evaluate the education standards in such schools or centres; assess the implementation and effectiveness of programmes of education devised in respect of individual students who have a disability or other special educational needs; assess the implementation of regulations made by the Minister and report to the Minister or to the board, patron, parents of students or teachers, as appropriate, and as prescribed, on these matters or on any other matter relating to the activities of those schools or centres.

A comprehensive range of functions are assigned to each inspector. I know what the Senator is getting at. His amendment is similar to one tabled in the other House by the Opposition spokesperson who seemed to be anxious to create a new office of chief inspector which would be at one remove from the Department and would offer critical evaluation of what the Department was doing. My view is that the chief inspector should be an integral part of the team of the Department. I do not want to refer to the British model where inspectors concentrate on the inspection dimension of their work. I know from experience — I have been in office only 15 months — that inspectors play an effective role in terms of curriculum development, monitoring and the State examination system and in advising Ministers in terms of psychological services and special needs. We have to decide if we want to create a division within the existing structures and move the inspectorate from the Department or whether we want to retain it in the Department. I think it is preferable to keep the inspectorate within the Department.

These are excellent proposals. While the availability of an inspectorate to advise parents is a positive one, it must be viewed in terms of the realities of a school board of management perspective. To eliminate any confusion or misinterpretation, advice rendered should come only after consultation with school management. That is the basis of my amendment No. 31.

Parents might find that unacceptable. They might not like the idea of an inspector consulting them having already consulted school management. Parents feel — and I agree with them on this — that they should have the right to consultation, irrespective of whether an inspector has talked to management.

That would take away from the responsibilities of the board of management. It is increasingly more difficult to put together boards of management. I am a member of a number of boards of management. I have discussed this matter and the feeling among members is that my amendment would be acceptable. I am considering the realities from a school management perspective.

It is not taking away from the boards of management. Why should a parents' association not be able to talk to the inspector?

I have no problem with that.

It may not be the intention of the Senator's amendment, but its effect would be that the inspector may consult with parents only after he or she has consulted with the board of management. That may not be desirable from the point of view of parents. What would happen if a board of management was non-co-operative and did not communicate with a parents' association? That is one of the frustrations experienced by many parents' associations — they cannot get past boards of management to access decision makers and inspectors.

I do not see a problem. If we accept this amendment it could restrict the right of parents to access a key player — the inspector. Parents are also key players and must be seen as equal partners in the process.

This is an interesting point as I am a member of a board of management and a parent. I have a dual role. I have had consultations with both sides and I am putting forward the viewpoint of the board of management. This matter has been discussed by the boards of management on which I serve. This is why I tabled this amendment.

As regards the chief inspector, I agree we would create another layer. Will the role of the chief inspector incorporate the function highlighted by Senator Costello? If one appoints a chief inspector, it is important that he or she has a role in the system. That would cover the Senator's concerns.

I understand what the Minister is saying. He would like the inspectorate to operate in a collective fashion. However, this would omit any role for the chief inspector. Is the chief inspector a primus inter pares? Why is he or she chief inspector? The inspectorate will carry out these roles. The Minister is saying that all the functions I have specified for the chief inspector, apart from those in paragraph (g) concerning educational disadvantage, which he has not taken on board, are covered by the inspectorate in a collective fashion. This begs the question of what the chief inspector will do which is different from any other inspector. How will he or she perform his or her functions? How will he or she relate to the Minister? Will he or she be a go-between or will the inspectorate communicate with the Minister on an individual basis, if an inspector is dealing with a particular subject or area of operation? It is not clear how this collective will operate or what the role of the chief inspector will be.

The role of the inspectorate is the role of the chief inspector. They are interchangeable. The chief inspector will advise the Minister.

Where is that stated?

Section 13(1) states:

The Minister shall appoint a Chief Inspector and such and so many Inspectors as the Minister considers appropriate and the Chief Inspector and Inspectors collectively shall be known and are referred to in this Act as the "Inspectorate".

That does not state the chief inspector has a role to advise the Minister. That role is given to the inspectorate, collectively. The most junior inspector appointed this year and the most senior one appointed 30 years ago, who is chief inspector, are part of the inspectorate. Why appoint a chief inspector if he or she does not have a specific role?

At different times all inspectors will advise the Minister. It could be advice on the curriculum or advice from inspectors with expertise in particular areas — primary inspectors, post-primary inspectors, geography inspectors and so on. A chief inspector will be in charge of the inspectorate and the Minister shall appoint that person. The chief inspector shall have the functions outlined on pages 15 and 16.

Would it not be appropriate——

I am advised that it is not necessary.

——to take on board some of my proposals? I am seeking that the chief inspector's functions should include managing and co-ordinating the activities of inspectors as a whole to maximise output; to take directions from the Minister and report and advise the Minister. This would establish a line of communication in which the chief inspector would have a specific role and his or her responsibility would be to manage the inspectorate. Otherwise, how will the inspectorate operate collectively out of the blue? There will have to be some leadership role, otherwise it is not necessary to appoint a chief inspector. As the Bill stands, the chief inspector does not appear to have any managerial, co-ordinating or communicative role. That is done by the inspectorate, collectively. This is confusing and will give rise to a lack of direction, function, targeting and communication. I like the principle of a collective entity. However, the chief inspector would need a defined role.

Mr. Ryan

I am confused. What will the chief inspector do which an inspector will not do? One function will be determining such examinations as an inspector may be required to do. The other function I can find is that a teacher or a board may request the chief inspector to review any inspection. These are the only two functions I can find in the section which give the chief inspector a different role. One concerns examinations and the other concerns appeals which can be made about inspections. Is there anything else the chief inspector will have to do that an inspector will not have to do?

At present, the chief inspector has the status of assistant secretary in the Department. The Public Service Management Act has to be implemented before the end of the year and it will lay down the hierarchy and the functions of each officer in the Department. The key is to have an integrated approach. The Senator is correct that the chief inspector has always been involved and is responsible for the conduct of State examinations, the school evaluation process and the inspection process. Therefore, for example, the chief inspector would have been primarily responsible for developing the school evaluation pilot project. We have to be careful about creating competing orders of hierarchy in the Department or separating functions from the Department. The Public Service Management Act will do this, but someone has to make the final decision.

I still think the Minister's——

I will come back to the Senator on Report Stage and I will reflect on what he has said. I went through this on Committee Stage in the other House and I am satisfied the chief inspector can operate. We will have a further look at this to be doubly sure. The divisions of responsibility will be dealt with in the context of the Public Service Management Act.

I would like to hear that. However, where the chief inspector is referred to——

It is exactly the same as in the Education (No. 1) Bill which the Senator enthusiastically supported.

I am not sure I indicated my enthusiastic support of that Bill.

I withdraw the comment.

References to the role of chief inspector are patchy. They concern examinations, inspections and appeals. They do not refer to areas one would expect, such as co-ordination, management and communication with the Minister. Those problems need to be teased out.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.