Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016: Committee Stage
Sections 1 to 6, inclusive, agreed to.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 5, line 5, to delete "20 school days" and substitute "10 school days".
I welcome the Bill, which provides for a radical change of our education system. While I was unable to contribute to the Second Stage debate I look forward to hopefully improving the Bill on Committee Stage today. This amendment deals with the number of days for which a student must be suspended before being able to appeal the suspension. The Bill, as drafted, provides that student must have been suspended from school for a total of 20 school days before he or she can appeal the suspension to the appeals committee. In school calendar terms, 20 days is equivalent to four weeks or one month, which is a long time for a student to be suspended before being able to appeal the decision. In reducing the number of days from 20 to ten days a student would be able to seek a review of his or her situation sooner, miss less school before being able to appeal the suspension to the appeals committee and, therefore, there would be less of a disruption to the student's academic or personal life.
I would prefer if it were possible to appeal any suspension. Currently, in most schools suspensions range from three to five days. If a student is unfairly suspended, he or she should be able to appeal that decision in a timely manner. I have supported parents in my community who were struggling to advocate for their children. Parents are often not aware that a school has not followed its procedures and policies in regard to suspensions. Teachers will often opt for suspension without even exploring with the child or student the reason for the behaviour. At the time of my first suspension from school at the age of 13, I had witnessed my friend being hit by a bus.
There was no intervention by the school to see why my behaviour had radically changed. Reducing the number of days would allow the school, parents and, possibly, the board to become aware of why a child is racking up so much suspension. The school might be able to intervene at a much earlier stage to create a much better situation for and provide much better supports to the child, instead of relying on suspensions as a form of punishment.
I understand that in some cases we do need to use suspension, for example, if a child has become violent or has become a risk to someone. I am not saying we should not look to suspension at all, but we should have as low a threshold as possible as to when a child can be heard and advocate as to why he or she would rack up a total as high as 20 days suspension. If that is racked up over one year it is very hard to get back into school. It is very hard when one falls behind and the class has moved ahead so quickly. It really damages the relationship between a child and a teacher when that child is sitting in a classroom and he or she feels as though he or she is being left behind or unfairly treated. Will the Minister consider the amendment? It would be a positive intervention. I look forward to his response.
This seems to be a perfectly rational amendment and I am happy to support it. It seems to me we should encourage children to attend school as regularly as possible. I will make a couple of other remarks. I refer to use of the word "pedigree" by the Minister on previous occasions. I am sure it was unintentional, but it has given some offence, particularly because many people are from mixed families, with one parent being a fluent Irish speaker and another not, and perhaps not even an Irish national. They should also be considered. Children raised through Irish should be given some degree of preferential treatment in terms of attending Irish schools because this is their background and first language and they should be given that accommodation. In the circumstances, principals need additional facilities and expertise available to them to conduct the increased workload they have.
Tá fáilte roimh an Aire chuig an Teach seo. Tugaim tacaíocht do na moltaí a rinne an Seanadóir Ruane, I support her proposal on ten days. It is important. We also need to look at the school's perspective. The last thing, from my experience, that schools do is suspend a student. They go through all of the processes diligently. School management and the teachers make every effort to ensure they keep all of the students as well as they can but, on occasion, unfortunately, they must make a decision for the common good of the rest of the students and the overall diaspora of parents. It is important to give a certain amount of flexibility to school authorities because I know they do it as a last resort.
I do not like going back to this, because it is always bandied about, but a deeper and important issue is financial support for schools and boards of management to support children who find themselves in difficulty. The Senator is a good example of this. Quite often, and Senator Ruane is a good example of this, all they need is a little bit of support to turn around and make a significant contribution to their communities. They are crying out looking for something, and very often schools do not have supports in place to help them. It is a balancing issue, but more resources can make a big difference.
I will support Senator Norris on something that will come up later with another amendment. My colleague, Senator Gallagher, has tabled an amendment on the Irish language. It is very important that we protect the Irish language and that parents and children who want to get their education totally through the medium of the Irish language are supported in doing so. It has a special place in our Constitution and it should be protected. Children and parents have that particular right. If children who do not have sufficient knowledge of Irish want to go to a Gaelscoil they should have the opportunity to go an Irish summer college or develop their vocabulary in Irish so they could be fluent. The English stream should focus more strongly on providing stronger and better classes in the medium of Irish and giving support for it. It is not a matter of diluting Irish language schools and Gaelscoileanna, it is actually a matter of strengthening it in the English-focused schools.
The Minister is very welcome. I was not able to contribute last week, unfortunately, and I want to stress that we welcome the Bill. It takes significant steps forward that Sinn Féin has called for some time, particularly with regard to issues regarding the baptism barrier. I will speak to this particular amendment because Senator Ruane has made a very fair point as 20 days seems to be a very high barrier. I hope that as a thoughtful Minister, Deputy Bruton will work with us today to see where there are reasons or grounds for reviewing this. I tend to agree with Senator Ruane that ten days seems to be a more sensible suggestion, in terms of giving the right to parents to appeal.
I also want to echo the point Senator Norris made. It was unfortunate the Minister used the word "pedigree" with regard to the Irish language. For example, in my case I cannot speak a word of Irish, to my shame. I was born in England and did not come home until I was a teenager. My children are being brought up through the Irish language in primary and secondary school. I guess I do not meet the pedigree criteria. It is an unfortunate term and I would like the Minister to take this opportunity to consider withdrawing it.
I join Senator Ruane in welcoming the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to the House and I express our admiration for his proactivity and leadership and his new approaches in education. He is an extraordinarily successful Minister and it is a pleasure to work with him.
I understand and fully support the spirit of Senator Ruane's amendment and what she is trying to achieve. Nobody would question the efficacy of an appeals system and the efficacy of being as fair as possible. All I will say is I was a member of the board of management of a community school for a number of years. I was a nominee of the VEC. An appeals process by its nature is quasi-judicial. It is a big process and it has to be very rigorous and go through due process. We would not want to have it at the drop of a hat, and we certainly would not want to have it too readily. That is the balance that needs to be struck. We could not have it too often or too easily obtained.
Senator Ó Céidigh said no school suspends a student except in a very extreme situation. I remember when I was on the board of management at every meeting a disciplinary process was gone through first, then parents were met and the student was met with the parents. There was an entire process, which should be the case, and support and career guidance was given before suspension. I would be careful about it. The principle of an appeal is sacrosanct and unmovable, but to have it too readily and too quickly might be a difficulty.
I see Senator Ó Céidigh's point about resources. It is important that schools are able to very discreetly let certain children who need it go on school tours and certain children who need it take part in sports and have a range of experiences for which they might not have an opportunity otherwise. I taught in a primary school and we did this with a great level of discretion and tact and almost in an anonymous fashion. Senator Ó Céidigh is correct to state such an intervention could be transformative for a child and could make all the difference. It is important to do these things but to do them with great tact and discretion. It would be good to have funding through a discretionary fund to use in these situations.
I welcome the Minister back to the House to discuss this Bill. I find I am in agreement with all of the contributions on Senator Ruane's amendment.
Senator Joe O'Reilly outlined thoughts on the matter that are similar to mine. I have every confidence in the vast majority of boards of management and school principals employing common sense in respect of this issue. From experience in this area, I am aware that such common sense is apparent. Nevertheless, I would welcome the comments of the Minister on Senator Ruane's amendment.
I thank Senators for their contributions and their general welcome for the Bill.
I wish to deal with the issue that Senators Norris and Gavan raised. Neither Senator was present when we discussed the Bill on the previous occasion. At that time, I pointed out that in considering priority access to a Gaelscoil, we need to use grounds that are rooted in the child. We cannot use grounds that would be rooted in the child's seed, breed and generation, whether he or she has spoken Irish from birth or is a native speaker. The reference to pedigree was a quote from a court case. The judge in that case ruled against a certain proposal because it was based on a principle of pedigree, which appears to have no place in a democratic society committed to the principle of equality. That is the context in which the reference to pedigree arose. In other words, if we want to say that a child who has a high level of competency in Irish, because he or she speaks Irish outside of the school, should get priority access to a Gaelscoil, it cannot be rooted in the parents or something that would perhaps exclude an immigrant parent, people who did not have certain opportunities or broken families. That was the context. It was not being used in the context of any denigration of people. I am sure I may have used the word carelessly but it was rooted in a court ruling on a similar subject.
I will return to Senator Lynn Ruane's proposal. Senator Joe O'Reilly adverted to this point. A section 29 appeal is not really intended to be a first port of call at the first sign of difficulty. Under existing legislation when there is six days of suspension, Tusla education welfare officials are notified. The expectation is that the school will resolve the issue without recourse to an appeal. It is not intended that an appeal under section 29 would be used. Senator Joe O'Reilly described how that process brings matters to national level with a committee, a hearing and the presentation of evidence on both sides. I do not think we want to see section 29 appeals used at the first sign of difficulty in a school in the integration of a child.
I will outline the background to this matter. There is no reference to the number of days in the Act. The current procedures for a section 29 appeal hearing were developed in collaboration with the education partners, including bodies representing parents. It was agreed that 20 days was an appropriate number. We have tried to reflect this in section 29 of the Bill. I assure Senators that in developing new procedures for section 29 appeals, as provided for in the Bill, I will reflect on the matter to ensure that the procedures under which appeals are used are appropriate. If there is an opportunity for further consultation and we need to see some modification I will consider it.
There is a connection between what we are doing in this Bill and the Education (Welfare) Act. Under the Act, a school must notify the education welfare service when the school intends to expel a student. That is the next level up. A student cannot be expelled from school before the passing of 20 days following notification to the education welfare service. During this timeframe, the education welfare service engages with the school and parents of the student. On occasion, the school may decide to suspend the student pending the passing of the 20 days and a final decision being made on expulsion of the student. As a result, the amendment could have the unintended consequence of allowing an appeal to be made during the timeframe when the education welfare service is engaged with the school and the parents of the student. In addition, the amendment could have the unintended consequence of requiring two separate section 29 appeals to be required in some cases. An appeal could be taken on the decision by the school to suspend a student pending a final decision on expulsion, while a further appeal could also be taken if the school decides to expel the student. This would require parents and school representatives to attend two separate appeal hearings in a short period. The amendment could also result in schools moving to consider permanent expulsion sooner in a situation where the school is working with the student and parents to manage the behaviour of the student. The amendment could also potentially interfere with any efforts at mediation between a school and parents where a student has been suspended for several days or several times.
I am not disposed to accept the amendment. The danger with what the Senator is putting forward is that it amounts to using appeal hearings as an early intervention mechanism in a situation where we would hope that the education welfare service, working with the school, the home school liaison officer, if there is one, parents and so on, would come up with solutions. The National Educational Psychological Service would be involved in some situations as well. That is the thinking. Of course, a parent must have a right of appeal. However, we would hope that the right of appeal would be exercised after a great deal of effort has gone in but has not proven successful. At that stage, the issue may have to be escalated to a more formal hearing before what is effectively a national appeals board.
I thank the Minister for his response. I completely accept that the 20 days sounds reasonable when we look at the other possibilities for early intervention. The disappointing thing for me is that I know these early interventions are not being utilised.
Other speakers have said that principals in schools will suspend students as a last resort. I imagine that is true of most schools. However, staff in under-resourced schools working in high-stress situations are suspending at higher rates and far more readily than some of the schools to which Senators may be referring. Two speakers, including Senator Gallagher, said that, in their experience, schools use suspension as a last resort. In my experience, that is not the case. My experience as a student and that of the people who come to me from disadvantaged areas all around Dublin suggests otherwise. Unfortunately, some parents do not know how to exercise their rights and so the suspensions keep happening without early intervention within six days. If I thought Tulsa was being notified after a run of six days of suspension, then it would be great because it would indicate that intervention is happening early. However, it would also mean that some children almost end up looking to get suspended after a period. Sometimes, if students have been suspended several times, they almost look for suspension. They realise that nothing is going to happen and that they will get three days off school easily. However, if follow-up was to take place, for example, an intervention from Tusla, those families and the children would not use the suspension system so openly and loosely for extra days off. This is because another body would be intervening. Unfortunately, this is the reality in some schools.
I agree that schools will use expulsion mostly as a last call, but in many schools that is not the case with suspension. Some of those schools may need extra protection if the legislation somehow strengthens the obligation on the school to report to Tusla. Is there any data on this? Are schools keeping data on suspension levels for children? Can we get the data and examine whether schools are following the procedures and reporting to Tusla after six days? Such reporting may indicate that the behaviour in question is persisting and that the family might need support.
There is no point in having a provision, if it is not being utilised. If it can be utilised, I am happy to leave it at 20 days. My reason for lowering the number of days is that I have the knowledge that this is not always the case.
I have seen data from Tusla, although it is no longer in education, on absences and suspensions. It is my understanding that this data are publicly available. The Education (Welfare) Act 2000 requires that Tusla be notified within six days. Tusla has to decide on its follow up. If there are deficiencies in the agency's follow up, we should not seek early recourse to the appeals mechanism which takes it away from the school and does not resolve anything. If there is a deficiency, we need to address it at school and Tusla levels.
In defence of my Department, a great deal of effort is being put into building well-being strategies and we will soon publish a well-being strategy, which deals with many of the issues surrounding behaviour and stress when something goes wrong and trying to build the capacity of the school to deal with that. We put all the additional resource we secured for the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, into the DEIS schools to strengthen their capability. I am certainly interested in examining other interventions that could help DEIS schools to manage effectively.
These schools have halved the drop-out rate in a decade from 32% to 15%. That indicates that they are having some success. We need to do more in this area and the interventions should relate to supporting the school to manage the drop out rate rather than to introduce an intervention in legislation, which I honestly could be counterproductive to implementing the bottom-up solutions that we all desire.
I accept what the Minister is saying. I agree with him that the issue should be managed at school level. I would be eager and happy to look at how I can work with the Department on the experiences of people in some of the communities. When I speak about DEIS schools, it is not to undermine the work of DEIS schools and what they do. I understand the social context in which the schools operate and how difficult it is with the few resources they have. My work seems to be weighted on the side of the student, who in some circumstances is difficult. It is a difficult situation for the teacher and the school. I tend to sympathise with the child because of the context in which he or she is operating in. Any support to ensure earlier intervention at school level will help them.
I would be happy to work with Senator Ruane on that. We are trying to evolve policies on completion, home-school liaison and NEPS. All the policies have the same goal.
I will withdraw my amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments Nos. 2 to 4, inclusive, 6, 9 and 12 are related and will be discussed together by agreement.
Government amendment No. 2:
In page 5, to delete lines 19 to 25 and substitute the following:
“ ‘Act of 2018’ means the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018;
‘annual admission notice’ has the same meaning as it has in Part X (inserted by section 9 of the Act of 2018);
‘applicant’ has the meaning assigned to it by subsection (1);
‘board’ includes a committee established under section 44(1) or 44(7) of the Education and Training Boards Act 2013;
‘oversubscribed’ has the same meaning as it has in Part X (inserted by section 9 of the Act of 2018);
‘school’ has the same meaning as it has in Part X (inserted by section 9 of the Act of 2018);
‘school year’ has the same meaning as it has in Part X (inserted by section 9 of the Act of 2018);
‘special class’ has the same meaning as it has in Part X (inserted by section 9 of the Act of 2018);
‘special educational needs’ has the same meaning as it has in the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004;”.
Essentially these amendments tidy up definitions and make them consistent in the section dealing with admissions and in section 29. Amendment No. 2 inserts a number of additional definitions into the new section 29. The definitions that are included in Part X and have now been inserted for the purpose of section 29, from section 29A to section 29F, include the definition of the "Act 2018", "annual admission notice", "school", "special class", and "special educational needs". The Act of 2018 has also been substituted instead of the full title of the Act for brevity in the definitions of "oversubscribed" and "school year".
Amendment No. 3 substitutes the word "matters" for matter, and inserts the plural of the word to ensure that the Minister can include more than one matter in procedures under this section, if necessary.
Amendment No. 4 substitutes the correct reference to 'therefor" in this provision.
Amendment No. 6 deletes the words, "in the case of an appeal brought by a parent or a student," from this provision. The current wording enables this provision to apply only to cases where an appeal is made by the parent or a student and does not allow for a situation where the independent person appointed by the agency makes an appeal. Deleting these words ensures that in all of these cases, the committee should consider the NCSE or agency submissions.
Amendment No. 9 is a proofing amendment to ensure consistency of language with the Bill's existing provisions that reflect the reality that it is the school principal rather than the school or the board who implements the schools admission policy. The relevant provision in the Bill refers only to the board making a decision to refuse admission and the amendment corrects this error.
Amendment No. 12 is a technical amendment to delete the full title of the Act and substitute "the Act of 2018" for brevity as this has been defined for Part X.
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 3:
In page 8, line 5, to delete "matter" and substitute "matters".
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 4:
In page 8, line 31, to delete "therefore" and substitute "therefor".
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 9, lines 9 to 14, to delete all words from and including "by—" in line 9 down to and including line 14 and substitute the following:
"by admitting the student to the school or special class concerned.".
My amendment relates to the process by which a student can appeal to the board of a school if they have been denied admission due to a school being oversubscribed under section 29C(1) or for another reason under section 29C(2).
The applicant makes an appeal to the board under section 29C. The board assesses the appeal based on the implementation of the schools admission policy and the content of the admissions notice. The board can then decide to issue a statement to the applicant stating: there was no error; there was an error but it had no material effect on the outcome; or that there was an error and it had a material effect on the outcome, that is, the student was denied admission as a result. This is clearly a serious situation as the school has made an error in implementing its own admissions policy. The school has been found to be at fault but if the board finds the school acted in error there are two options: first, to admit the student, and, second, to simply adjust the student's place on the school's waiting list. Where the board has been found to be at fault, a student is not even guaranteed a reversal of its wrong decision and a place in the school, but the piecemeal measure of a higher spot on the waiting list.
My amendment removes the ability of the school to go for the easy option and move a student up the waiting list and, instead, provides the school must admit the person to the school or special class. If a board makes a mistake, error or fault in this area, the student should not have to suffer. The board should have a legal responsibility to facilitate their admission and it should not have a get out of jail option to move a child up the waiting list.
This is an important amendment because otherwise the appeal to the board is somewhat tokenistic if the decision does not have to be reversed. If a child is just moved up a waiting list, he or she may only be moved up one spot as opposed to next on the waiting list, even though he or she was not admitted because of an error. If we are going to legislate for schools to follow their admission policies in the way they are supposed to, the appeal should have consequences, which means that the child is granted a place in the school.
I would like the Minister's feedback on the amendment. I urge him to accept it.
There may be a slight misunderstanding about what is being done. These subsections list the options that are available.
They are not saying that there is an unfettered choice to take one or the other. They are saying that, if an error had occurred and a child was placed 30th on a waiting list when he or she should have been placed tenth, the decision can be made to place that child tenth. If the situation was that the child should have been admitted, the child will be admitted. This provides the range.
This comes up again in the Senator's amendment No. 10. This lists what a board can decide. It can obviously decide to do nothing and not to uphold an appeal, whatever that appeal might be. It can uphold the appeal and admit the child if that is the relevant and appropriate decision. It can place the child in his or her proper place on the waiting list if that is appropriate. I recognise that the section does not explain this, because it lists the available options. I will certainly ensure it will be very clear in the procedures that will accompany this Bill, but it is absolutely the intention that, where this occurs, that is what the boards will do. To be clear, if that was not done a decision would be open to judicial review on the grounds that it was totally unfair. If an appeals body trying the evidence and having a hearing finds that the child was wrongly excluded, he or she must be included. However, if a child was found to have been placed on the waiting list incorrectly, he or she must be put in his or her proper place. That is the intention of this section.
If the Senator's amendment was accepted it would result in a situation in which, if an error occurred and a child was placed 30th on a waiting list when he or she should have been tenth, the child would not be moved up to the appropriate place on the waiting list but rather the Bill would force his or her admission, even though that would breach the school's admission policy. While I understand what the Senator is driving at, I cannot accept the amendment because, if it was accepted, any error discovered in any material procedure would result in the child having to be admitted ahead of children with legitimate priority over that child under the admission policy and the Act. It would undermine what we are trying to do. I will, however, make sure that there will be no doubt in the procedures we issue to accompany this legislation that, where the evidence shows that a child ought to have been in the school, the adjudication will be to put him or her in the school and, if it is found that a child should be a higher on the waiting list, then the adjudication will be to put him or her higher on the waiting list.
That all makes perfect sense up to a point, but there is a part I do not get. It is probably really obvious. It is almost as if there is an appeals process in respect of the waiting list and another in respect of admission. Take the case of someone who made it so far on a waiting list that he or she was next to be admitted and, at that point, was not admitted. How could someone have been on the waiting list if he or she did not meet the criteria? Does the Minister understand? Perhaps I am taking this up wrong but the two processes would never work in tandem if the admissions process was being adhered to because a person would never have even made it on to the waiting list and, therefore, could not have made it to the top and then been refused a place, because that person would never have met the criteria to get on the waiting list. I just wonder about the logic of that.
The way in which the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill is intended to work is that schools can have an admissions policy. We are ruling things out that they cannot have in their admissions policies, for example, religion in the case of the vast majority of schools, but they can have other things in their policies. They could prioritise siblings of current students, pupils from feeder schools and then all other applicants or whatever. Therefore, there could be a waiting list. For example, all the siblings might be admitted but not all the children from feeder schools. In that case there would be a waiting list consisting of a given number of children from acknowledged feeder schools and then, below that again, other applicants who did not fit into that category. There might be ten next in line as having come from feeder schools who, under the admissions policy, were to get priority above others, and then there would be the others. If an appeal was about whether a child had come from a feeder school, he or she would be taken from the second list and put onto the first list of those waiting. That is what occurs here. Where a ruling occurs, if a child should have been in in the first place, for example because he or she was sibling of a current pupil, that child would have to be admitted to the school. Perhaps a child should have been counted among the pupils from a feeder school but was not. That is the sort of thing we are considering.
There is a possibility of waiting lists under this scheme. Where a school is popular it will have to have a ranking of how it will make decisions, which may be based on catchment areas, feeder schools or whatever other rules. A waiting list can legitimately form. What we are banning is waiting lists of the old style under which, if a person applied when a child was born, that child would have priority ahead of a blow-in. That is being abolished but there can legitimately be a series of waiting lists under this Bill.
We are providing that, where a school's procedures have unfairly put a child into an incorrect category, the child must be restored to his or her correct category. That category could be admission in some cases or it could just be joining the waiting list in the appropriate position in other cases. For example, age order can be used in waiting lists. That might be how a school decides to order all the children in one category. It might decide to take the oldest children first, which would create the ranking. If there was a mistake in the recording of the date of birth, it could clearly be said that child should be put among the older children who would be first to be admitted. If the Senator's amendment was accepted, in the case that a mistake had been made in the child's date of birth, he or she would have to be admitted ahead of older children who ought to have been ahead of him or her.
The section gives the options for the findings these reviews may make. The same issue comes up in amendment No. 10. In that case we are dealing with a section 29 appeal rather than with the internal school procedure. I could not accept the Senator's amendment but I will make sure that we ensure there is no question about the section's application and I will come back to the Senator on that on Report Stage. Any decision would be subject to judicial review immediately. We could not sustain a situation in which it was found that a child should have been in a school but in which we say that, although the mistake was made, the child is still not getting in. That would undermine the whole purpose of what we are doing.
Is the amendment being pressed?
I am going to withdraw it but I reserve the right to resubmit it on Report Stage because I still have some concerns about the drafting of the section. I will withdraw it at this Stage and come back on Report Stage.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Government amendment No. 6:
In page 10, line 31, to delete “in the case of an appeal brought by a parent or a student,”.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendments Nos. 7, 10 and 11 are related and may be discussed together.
I am speaking to my amendments, Nos. 7 and 10, am I?
Amendments Nos. 7, 10 and 11 are related and may be discussed together.
They are all mine in this group, are they?
They are all related anyway. The Senator has the floor.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 10, line 33, to delete “and” where it secondly occurs and substitute the following:
“(k) such other matters as the applicant considers relevant, and”.
This amendment is to the part of the Bill which concerns an applicant - either a student or his or her parent or guardian - appealing a decision to exclude the child from a school or to suspend him or her for more than 20 days. Having worked on many representations involving students who have been in these positions, I am concerned about the use of these measures by schools and the impact they have on the student concerned. Students often do not have a strong standing in circumstances such as these and the views of staff are given more weight. This weight is also reflected in this part of the Bill.
This amendment seeks to strengthen the standing of the student in these proceedings. It would allow the applicant to include matters in the oral hearing that he or she believes relevant to his or her case and would allow such students to include details such as extenuating circumstances for the appeals committee to consider in their deliberations. It is a minor change but would make a significant difference to students going through this process, their chances in this procedure and their long-term prospects. As for such students' relationship with a school, were students to go as far as to be able to lend their voice to their appeal and application, the fact that they were buying into that relationship and making that case also would mean they have taken responsibility for the suspension and were taking an active approach to reintegrating in the school. It would be a positive exercise for such students and would be fairer because the student is the one affected by the suspensions and his or her voice should be given more weight.
My amendment No. 8 was ruled out of order. Can the Leas-Chathaoirleach say why?
It imposed a potential charge on the revenue.
I would like to speak on it. Most schools have school liaison teachers. In west Tallaght, there are two schools in Killinarden and Jobstown. Some of the parents there do not have even a second level education. Instead of being a cost to the State, it could be arranged between the schools to have somebody who can advocate for the students and help them at every stage in the appeal process. For example, the Killinarden school-home liaison teacher might be called upon to support a child in Jobstown Community School to develop his or her appeal. The independent person could come from another school or a pot of staff. I ask the Minister to think about how we can support the most vulnerable families in bringing a solid case. I was 15 when I had my daughter. If I had to bring a case for her when I was younger, it would not have been as solid and as well thought out as one I could bring now. If a person is at that disadvantage he or she should be able to have an advocate. Maybe we could consider other ways that do not involve a cost to the State to make that happen.
Amendment No. 10 deals with what the Minister spoke about, that the board should have to admit the student. It is the same as amendment No. 2 but instead of referring to a decision by an appeals committee, it proposes that if an appeals committee finds that the board acted in error when refusing a student admission, it must be forced to admit the student, not to simply increase his or her ranking on a waiting list. I take on board all that the Minister has said on this. I will go away and consider the drafting in respect of how it is carried out, rather than focusing on the amendment.
Amendment No. 11 seeks to insert a paragraph:
(5) Following receipt of a decision under subsection (2), an applicant may seek a review by the Minister of the decision. Following the review, the Minister may direct the appeals committee to proceed to determine the appeal under section 29, notwithstanding any decision under subsection (2).
I am concerned that the obligations under this Bill on the details and conditions under which an appeal can be heard are relatively complicated. Moreover, families and students with lower socioeconomic means will struggle especially. Under the proposed section 29F, an appeals committee is given wide-ranging abilities to decline to hear an appeal if it views it as frivolous, if a certain strict timeline is not met, if all the documents have not been supplied or on various subjective grounds under subsection (1)(f). I am trying in this amendment to give a family that struggles to meet the high administrative requirements under this section a last chance option to appeal to the Minister and ask him or her to review their case and have the applicant heard. We are talking about a student being suspended, excluded or denied admission to school. It is a serious issue with long-term ramifications for the child. We need some option for a final chance for appeal, especially for families where there is an information or knowledge deficit.
This amendment ties in with the one that was ruled out of order. It might not be needed if the previous one had not been ruled out of order and we could have an independent advocate because then the child might not fall through the gaps by not meeting a requirement, leaving something out of a form, filling in the wrong part of a form or whatever it is that has led to his or her appeal being denied. The Minister needs to consider the class aspect of appeals and have some sort of safety net. If it is not inserted through this amendment, it needs to be done through a person who can be identified and can support those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds in meeting all requirements to make their appeal.
I compliment Senator Ruane on her amendment. She raises a very relevant point and I hope the Minister will take it on board, maybe on Report Stage. The Minister or Department might give some thought to a mechanism by which the Department could intervene where a family is perhaps not best placed to make an appeal on behalf of their child. As Senator Ruane rightly points out, there are situations where parents, for whatever reason, may not be in a position to put the best foot forward in respect of an appeal and one would not like to think that in such cases, those people would be forgotten about. I look forward to the Minister's comments on the Senator's amendment.
There is great merit in amendment No. 11 because it puts in an appropriate safeguard and makes those involved in this process aware of the fact that there is a safeguard that has to be respected. I cannot see what damage including this amendment would do to the Bill. It would only enhance it and I ask the Minister to give it due consideration.
I understand entirely the sentiment behind what Senator Ruane is proposing in attempting to put in place safeguards in respect of the vulnerability of the child. The Minister might table something that would look after the needs of the child and allay Senator Ruane's fears.
I accept what Senator Ruane is saying in respect of amendment No. 11. Maybe I can come back with an alternative wording on Report Stage when we have washed it through the Attorney General's office in order that we meet her intention in a way that is consistent with the rest of the Bill.
The reason I am not disposed to accept amendment No. 10 is the same as the one we discussed on amendment No. 5, that is, it curtails the range of decisions that could be made in the section 29 appeal after a favourable finding was made. I will ensure that in the procedures, it is absolutely clear how the choice should be made.
On amendment No. 7, we already have procedures in place for the hearing of these appeals and an applicant is given every opportunity to set out the grounds of their appeal at the beginning of the oral hearing. They are also provided with an opportunity to put questions to the representative from the school at the hearing. I intend that new procedures will be developed for hearings and for determining appeals that will allow applicants give a full account of the grounds of their appeal and to ensure they are conducted with the minimum of formality in order that all parties can get their hearing. I do not believe that the amendment is necessary where it refers to such other matters as the applicant considers relevant. The procedures now allow an applicant full range to set out whatever reasons there are. The subsection the Senator is amending also indicates that the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, or the educational welfare officer can come forward and make submissions in support of the student. That is why that is listed there.
It is also important to bear in mind that the whole tenor of this section is that the hearing will be fair to all sides. It is explicitly listed that the hearing has to consider the explanation offered by the student, the educational interests of the student and the reasonableness of the activity of the school in accommodating that student, given his or her needs. Amendment No. 7 is not necessary for the purposes of the Bill. As I said, I will be developing procedures and I will have consultations with all the relevant partners to ensure everyone involved will have a fair hearing in those procedures. The intention of this section is to ensure that hearings are fair and to encourage children to stay in school. That is what we are trying to achieve and that is its purpose. I accept the spirit of Senator Ruane's amendment No. 11 and I will come back on Report Stage with text to reflect that.
I thank the Minister for his response and I welcome the fact that he will revert on amendment No. 11 on Report Stage. On amendment No. 8, which was ruled out of order, I would love to contribute to a conversation with the Minister during the drafting of the amendment before he comes back on Report Stage. I want to make available my experience in respect of the groups I am talking about. I am happy to withdraw all of the other amendments in this section, with the right to come back on Report Stage. That is especially the case around procedures on the student voice. I would like to hear more from the Minister on that to make sure those procedures give as much weight to it as there would be if it was in the legislation. I will withdraw it at this stage.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 8 has been ruled out of order.
Amendment No. 8 not moved.
Government amendment No. 9:
In page 12, lines 10 and 11, to delete all words from and including “by” in line 10 down to and including line 11 and substitute “when the decision to refuse admission was made.”.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 not moved.
Government amendment No. 12:
In page 13, line 35, to delete “Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018)” and substitute “Act of 2018)”.
Amendment agreed to.
Section 7, as amended, agreed to.
Amendments Nos. 13 to 25, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together.
For the benefit of the House, I am disposed to accept Senator Kelleher's amendments.
I move amendment No. 13:
In page 15, line 6, to delete “may” and substitute “shall”.
I must be preaching to the converted. I am pleased. Every child has a right to education. I welcome this Bill because it seeks to overcome obstacles put in the way of children by the manner in which schools can operate their admissions policies and procedures. That can have the effect of denying a child his or her right to education and all that follows that in respect of accessing third level education and employment. Children with disabilities, special needs and autism have the right to education. That was fought for long and hard and that is why I am calling for a stronger statement of the Minister's duties in this section of Bill. It is about children with special needs, including autism, and their right to access education. I am proposing, therefore, that we have a firm commitment in law that the Minister "shall act", and not the discretionary "may act" as set out in this section.
The right to access education for the child with special needs should not only rely on or be left to the discretion of one person. I am also proposing that the procedure, as laid out in this section, be as swift as possible. Lengthy procedures and delays deny children their rightful access to education. That is why I am proposing the timeframes, as outlined in my amendments, at the various stages of the process. While every child with autism is a unique person, some general characteristics are associated with the condition of autism. Structure is important and routines play an important part in the lives of people with autism. Everyday hustle and bustle, which most people view as normal, can be an overwhelming combination of frightening crowds, intimidating sounds and overbearing lights. It can be imagined how scary school can be for the child with autism.
As routines help to create stability and order, children with autism like routine and predictability and they often find change extraordinary difficult. It often creates huge anxiety in the child and that is often played out in challenging behaviour. We all know that transfer to secondary school is one of the major changes to routine and one of the biggest upheavals in any child's life. It is an even bigger one for a child with autism, who may struggle with that major change. It is an even bigger challenge still if it is not clear or certain what school a child is transferring to or when, or even if, a child has a place.
Every effort should be made by special educational needs organisers, SENOs, and the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, to identify children in their area with autism in special classes and otherwise and to start planning early, at the beginning of sixth class or before. Children with autism should have the longest lead-in time possible for the smoothest and least stressful transfer to secondary school. They should have the time to prepare, to familiarise and to get used to the new school setting, new activities and new faces and places. Where difficulties arise in identifying a suitable school place with a special classroom or unit, the procedure set out in this section should commence as early as possible and be completed as quickly as possible, as per my amendments.
The Bill, as presented, proposes in some cases 28 days between the various steps. I am proposing a maximum of 14 days throughout, which still provides ample time for the processes. These are sometimes just a matter of writing a letter. This is to ensure that child with autism can take up his or her place in secondary school with his or her peers and that he or she can start in September, like every other child. There should be no delaying and adding to the stresses and anxieties of the child, or those of their parents, because of a lack of certainty about a school place or where they will know for sure they will be. A child's sense of difference or otherness compared with his or her peers and siblings should not be added to and he or she should not to be made to wait for their rightful education.
I will address the amendments in respect of reviewing the legislation. My amendment seeks to insert a three-year review provision into section 8 of the Bill. This would give the Minister the power and obligation to initiate a review no later than three years after this Bill comes into operation. It also obliges the Minister, no later than 12 months after the commencement of this three-year review, to make a report to each of the Houses of the Oireachtas. The rationale for the addition of this review procedure is that we need to monitor the legislation in order that we are able to assess whether it is actually having its intended impact, that is whether the legislation is working and addressing the clear gap in the provision of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, classrooms - particularly between primary and secondary school - and whether it is delivering the education to which children with autism have a right.
The Minister, Deputy Bruton, said himself last week that the autism education gap is closing somewhat. The fact is that the gap still remains. For the 2018-19 academic year, from figures provided to me and extrapolated from information from the National Council for Special Education, I understand that there are approximately 731 ASD classrooms nationally at primary level. At secondary level, in contrast, there are approximately 320. That is less that half than at primary level. The autism education gap may be closing but it is not closing fast enough. In Dublin, there are roughly 137 ASD classrooms at primary level but only 41 at secondary level. The most up-to-date figures I have for Cork is that there are around 119 classrooms and yet only 53 at second level. These numbers do not even take into account those children still in mainstream classes who may require ASD classes at secondary level.
The proposed three-year review is needed to have information to make the assessment of whether the Bill is addressing and eliminating this appalling inequity of ASD classes between primary and secondary levels. The review and the annual report proposals are monitoring mechanisms to make sure that our attempts to close and eliminate the autism education gap are indeed working and that no child with autism is denied access to education because of a lack of a place in a school with a suitable autism classroom or unit. We both want the same thing and I hope the Minister will support the review amendment. Without it, we will have no real way of knowing if this Bill has been effective in guaranteeing the right to education in a suitable setting for children with autism as they make the challenging and all-important transition to secondary school. We want to see the autism eliminated. Let us give ourselves the power in law and the information we need to make sure that happens.
I compliment Senator Kelleher on her work in this area. I am delighted that the Minister is taking her proposals on board. Fianna Fáil is satisfied with its contribution in the area of special needs and I am glad that the Minister has taken it on board. As Senator Kelleher outlined, great work has been done on this area over recent years but it is clear from the figures she outlined that more needs to be done. We must continue to strive to reduce those figures to an acceptable level, if there is such a thing. I welcome that the Minister has taken on board these amendments.
I thank the Lower House which was keen that this should be incorporated in the Bill. I also thank Senator Kelleher for her work in this field, as well as Senator Gallagher and others in Fianna Fáil.
When this Bill was introduced, during Second Stage debate in the Dáil there was broad all-party consensus on the need to address religion in the admissions policy, to require schools to open special needs units where there was a shortage and to address the issue of access to Gaelscoileanna. It took some time. A lot of work had to be put in with the Office of the Attorney General to ensure that everything that had been sought by the Lower House could be provided for in a way that was legally robust. I understand Senator Kelleher's view that it is a ponderous and carefully modulated system, which must take account of property rights and so on, but I am happy to accept her proposal to shorten the time periods.
I ask that we would return to amendment No. 25 on Report Stage with a provision to allow for the spirit of what she is seeking. This is to ensure that the Office of the Attorney General and the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel are happy with the drafting. I accept the amendment in principle. I accept the other amendments, namely amendments Nos. 13 to 24, inclusive, as they stand but I ask that we return to amendment No. 25.
Generally, the education system has made huge strides in catering to the needs of children with disabilities. That can be seen in the figures of children with disability who are participating, who are being supported by resource teachers and special needs assistants, and the additional 750 special units which have been opened in the past seven years. There is a great openness within the education system and I would not like anyone to get the sense that we are battling with a recalcitrant system that is not willing to do this. However, I fully accept that we need to have the legal authority, first, to designate a school to take an individual child, and, second, where it is necessary, to require a school to open such a unit. This will strengthen our armoury and allow us to continue to work with children with special needs and respond to their needs.
I acknowledge the contribution of all sides of the House on this.
I thank the Minister for accepting the amendments and I accept his proposal to resubmit amendment No. 25 in the knowledge that the Minister is accepting its spirit. I acknowledge the progress being made but we must also go as fast as we can because any delay on our part is a child's education denied. I thank my colleagues, Deputy Thomas Byrne, with whom I worked closely, and Mr. Graham Manning, a teacher from Cork who first brought this to our attention. A public meeting in January was attended by a range of public representatives from the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil, including Deputy Micheál Martin, as well as Deputies Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire and Mick Barry. Parents of children with autism were in despair because they did not know where their child would go, if anywhere. I am really pleased that the Minister has responded so well to this and is accepting thee amendments. I appreciate all the support that I have received from all sides. It will be a good day for those children and their parents, and remove a great anxiety from their lives. People are struggling with many issues and this will be one less to have to worry about.
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 14:
In page 15, line 15, to delete "28 days" and substitute "14 days".
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 15:
In page 15, line 28, to delete "may" and substitute "shall".
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 16:
In page 16, line 7, to delete "21 days" and substitute "14 days".
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 17:
In page 16, line 19, to delete "21 days" and substitute "14 days".
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 18:
In page 16, line 26, to delete "may" and substitute "shall".
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 19:
In page 16, line 34, to delete "21 days" and substitute "14 days".
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 20:
In page 17, line 1, to delete "21 days" and substitute "14 days".
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 21:
In page 17, line 8, to delete "may" and substitute "shall".
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 22:
In page 17, line 19, to delete "21 days" and substitute "14 days".
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 23:
In page 17, line 28, to delete "21 days" and substitute "14 days".
Amendment agreed to.
I move amendment No. 24:
In page 17, line 34, to delete "may" and substitute "shall".
Amendment agreed to.
Amendment No. 25 not moved.
Section 8, as amended, agreed to.
Amendments Nos. 26 and 27 are related and will be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 26:
In page 20, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:
"(b) the gender identity ground of the student or the applicant in respect of the student concerned,".
These amendments relate to the non-discriminatory grounds for admissions. The first relates to the addition of a gender identity ground and the second is the socioeconomic status of the student or the applicant in respect of the student concerned. These are two simple and straight forward amendments. Schools would have to prepare admission statements which set out criteria and procedure for admissions and a number of grounds on which they commit to not discriminate against students, the full list of which is in section 61. However, these grounds must be as wide-ranging and comprehensive as possible. Gender identity and socioeconomic grounds are both obvious and useful additions to this list, but, unfortunately, they are grounds on which there is a risk that schools might discriminate in admissions policies. It would send an important signal from this House on equality grounds and also provide a tangible protection for children who fall into these categories as they enter full-time education.
The Minister might correct me if I am wrong, but the current non-discrimination grounds are taken from the Equality Act 2004. I hope that the Minister would support this amendment and not restrict himself to those grounds. Fianna Fáil has discussed legislation to provide for socioeconomic status a ground for discrimination. Equality legislation dates back to the Equal Status Act 2000. A lot has changed in the past 18 years. Perhaps the Minister will consider this amendment and, hopefully, we can look to amend the Equality Act to add more grounds.
The Senator comments are accurate. We sought to import into the Bill the discrimination grounds as set out in the Equal Status Act 2000. We are requiring schools to state in their admissions policies that they do not discriminate on any of the nine grounds in that Act. It was not the intention of this Bill to originate new provisions in the Equal Status Act. We have not carried out the necessary legal consultation necessary for us to develop such within this Bill. Definitions in parent legislation would be required to do that. While I acknowledge that the Senator has a point, as we try to develop schools admissions policies I do not think we should always require the wider context of an amendment to the Equal Status Act to be undertaken.
While socioeconomic grounds are not the subject of a specific provision in the Bill, as a result of the fact that the Equal Status Act contains a reference to them, section 62 sets out the prohibition on schools taking certain things into account. The section prohibits a school from taking into account the occupation, financial status, academic ability, skills or aptitude of a student's parents when deciding on an application. That is not far off what the Senator has in mind. I am not disposed to or capable of originating new equal status legislation in the context of the work we are doing on school admissions. The preferred approach would be for this to be developed in parent legislation rather than trying to graft something onto a Bill when I do not know how that would work through.
Any legislation has to go to the offices of the Parliamentary Counsel and the Attorney General to ensure that what is proposed is workable, robust and so on. That work has not been done and the approach in the Bill has been to accept the grounds as set out in the Equal Status Act. Wherever they are amended we will incorporate that into this Bill. We did not see this as an area in which we should originate new work under the Equal Status Act.
It would be forward-thinking to use important equality legislation such as this to try to amend the Equal Status Act, something which has been done on other occasions. It would add two extra grounds to the Bill. I understand that would require more work but it is not unusual to use one item of legislation to amend another. Can the Minister repeat which section lists the occupation, skills and aptitude of parents?
It is section 62(7)(e)(iv).
I would like to read the section. My amendment also takes in gender identity. If we can use a section to acknowledge that rather than trying to address the issue in a more difficult way by carrying out keyhole surgery via the Bill and another item of legislation, perhaps we could acknowledge gender identity in section 62. I would like to know what the Minister thinks about that.
I will have to consider that and come back to the Senator. To be honest, gender identity is fully acknowledged in schools in practice. We have not experienced any section 29 appeals where people have found themselves to be discriminated against. That is not to say that it should not be clearly stated in the Bill. If there is some easy way of acknowledging that I would be disposed to consider it. I am very keen that we pass the Bill and put a lot of its very valuable elements in place in schools. I have made a commitment that all of the provisions will be in place by September 2019. I do not want to lose the opportunity to progress the Bill, although I acknowledge the validity of what the Senator has said. I will examine the proposal and ask my officials to see whether we can accommodate it, and I will talk to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. The signal I got when I raised this issue, having read the Senator's amendment, was that there were misgivings within the Office of Parliamentary Counsel about trying to address the issue in this way. In light of what the Senator has said, I will make sure to go back and cover the tracks.
I am willing to accept that. We may consider an easier option in the meantime in the context of section 52. Even though no appeals have been made in respect of gender identity, because it is so stigmatised and discriminated against, it is still underground. Acknowledging gender identity in the Bill would allow for a community to deal with the matter. My daughters have friends in school who are transgender. When such matters are addressed in legislation, it affords students the same equality as the acknowledgement of LGBTI and other gender identities. I know the discrimination exists because I have heard from parents about uniforms and those who want to identify in whatever direction not being able to wear school trousers instead of a skirt. If we find a way to address the issue in the Bill, it would be progressive and truly equal legislation in terms of education and admissions. I am happy for the Minister to come back to me on section 62. I will withdraw my amendment but I retain the right to resubmit.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 27 not moved.
Amendments No. 28, 51 and 52 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 28:
In page 23, line 11, after “school” to insert “not aided by the Department of Education and Skills”.
I would like to start by welcoming the Minister's new amendments, which go some way towards addressing the issue of the baptism barrier. However, I am unhappy with the singling out of one religion, namely Catholicism, and the removal of a religious barrier only in the case of Catholic primary schools. The barrier will still exist for secondary schools and publicly-funded primary schools that cater for minority religions. Amendment No. 28, if accepted, would mean that only schools not aided by the Department of Education and Skills could refuse a child admission in order to maintain their religious ethos. This is far cleaner, clearer and simpler than what the Government's proposes, which would still allow a baptism barrier in secondary schools and would only remove the religious barrier in Catholic primary schools. All other religions can discriminate against children in the context of schools admissions.
The approach the Green Party is putting forward is that publicly-funded national schools must be for all children. If the baptism barrier is removed for one religion, it should be removed for all. The Green Party amendment states that not only privately-funded schools or schools which receive no State funding may discriminate on the basis of religion. Our amendments are simpler and dispassionate. The best way to cater for our children's right to education is to ensure that all schools are treated equally. All of the nation's children should have equal access to all of the nation's publicly-funded schools.
The definition of a minority school is one that is focused on a religion whose membership comprises less than 10% of the population. It is also quite sustainable. Our society is changing rapidly. The 2016 census saw the smallest ever number of people recording themselves as Catholic. Judging by threats of excommunication of Catholics after 1.4 million people voted "Yes" to repealing the eighth amendment, who is to say that Catholicism will not be a minority religion in a few years, or indeed that all religions will not become minority religions? In the last census, 9.84% of the population registered as having no religion. As my colleague Deputy Catherine Martin has said in the Dáil, this legislation must be applicable to one and all, with no exceptions. That is the best way to ensure that our children's right to access education is at the heart of this legislation. We must acknowledge, embrace and cater to the changing society we live in by ensuring that all children are treated equally when it comes to education.
I want to support this amendment in particular. I think it goes to the heart of the broader conversation we need to have about education and about the necessary separation of church and State in a true republic. We welcome this Bill. We welcome it as a step towards removing the baptism barrier. However, as my colleague has just pointed out, it does not actually remove the baptism barrier. There is a get-out clause here, and underpinning the get-out clause is something uncomfortable that we need to acknowledge. That is that the State and our Government still think it is okay to separate children at the age of five on the basis of religion. It is not okay. Speaking as a republican and as a member of the largest party of the left in this country, we do not accept that ideology. We believe in the true separation of church and State. We believe that no children should be separated on the basis of their family religion. We believe that people have every right to bring up their children in whatever faith they believe in, but not under a public education system. I know of numerous parents, including myself, who are extremely frustrated at the fact that we do not have this choice at the moment. My second-eldest son has spent half his year kicking his heels because he happens to be in the so-called confirmation year, and we do not do confirmation in our family.
I think this amendment goes to the heart of whether we believe in the principle of a Republic. One cannot really compromise on that principle. One either believes in the separation of church and State, or one does not. We are all familiar with "liberty, equality, fraternity", but everyone seems to forget laïcité, the fourth principle of the French Revolution and of a true Republic, which is separation of church and State. It is time that we caught up with society. As the last speaker has pointed out, we really have moved on as a society and I think the Minister is missing an opportunity to make a real statement about the Republic that we aspire to be, a Republic that truly separates church and State. I urge him to give due consideration to these amendments. I think they are truly worthwhile, and they have the full support of our party.
First of all, I welcome the debate. Maybe I should mention the backdrop to this. As Members know, when this Bill was originally introduced to the Dáil the issue of religion was not addressed. Perhaps contrary to Senator Gavan, I believe that diversity in religion is welcome and that parents should have the right to choose the type of education that they want. It is a strength of our community that parents want to see their children brought up in their own faith. I think that is something to be welcomed and to be supported insofar as possible.
However, what I see as totally unfair is a situation where a growing number of children have parents who are of no faith, do not wish to see their children raised in a faith and do not have the options of access. Some 95% of schools are denominational schools. Only one out of 20 is otherwise. I am ensuring that in 19 out of the 20 schools religion will not be used as a test in admission, so that those schools which are State-funded have to have rules that accept admissions. I think it is frankly unfair that parents should feel obliged to have their child baptised, or that a local child should find that a child from a long distance away is selected ahead of them.
There is a separate discussion on how we achieve diversification of patronage. I have taken initiatives to pursue a more diverse patronage. I have set a target of 400 schools to be non-denominational or multi-denominational by 2030. However, in order to get to what we have today I had a public consultation and invited submissions. I then sat down with all of the stakeholders and could not get agreement on a compromise solution. There were a number of proposals before the Dáil that considered confining religious priority just to catchment areas. I did not believe that was an acceptable way to move forward. I am signalling on Committee Stage and providing here that religion will not be used in 19 out of every 20 schools.
I would defend the need to protect minority religion schools. There is nothing wrong with having Church of Ireland or Presbyterian schools. If a parent wants their child brought up in a school of the ethos of the Protestant tradition, I believe that should be supported. If I did not do what I am doing here, that is, providing an exception for minority religion schools, those minority religion schools would be filled with children who were not of that tradition. They would cease to be a school of that tradition in any real sense. Perhaps this is a different philosophic approach to that of some Senators. I am trying to ensure that in this legislation we satisfy parents and their children to the maximum extent possible, bearing in mind the point from where we are starting. No one would have chosen to start from a situation where 19 out of 20 primary schools are denominational. That does not reflect Irish society today. However, I think we have to proceed by way of the approach that I am adopting, to show that we can progressively respond to a changing Ireland. Part of a progressive Ireland is being able to have minority religion schools within our system, and to value and recognise the strength that those schools bring to our tradition. Certainly I see them as of value, and I am keen to protect them.
A Senator made the point that this is unfair to the Catholic Church. I do not believe so, because it is essentially the case that a parent who is Catholic and wants to see their child raised in a Catholic school has 18 out of every 20 schools to choose from. They will have the opportunity to have their wishes met in the vast majority of cases. On the other hand, a child of a Protestant or Jewish tradition does not have that range of choice. There is likely to be only one or a small number of schools in their locality, or indeed in the wider regional area, that might cater for their needs. It is proportionate, in my view, to allow a parent who wants a child to be brought up in such a tradition to have priority access to a school that offers that ethos. I have tried to balance the conflicting desires of parents, parents of the Catholic faith, parents of minority religions and parents of no religion at all. That is the thinking behind this, and I would have to say that consultation, bringing people with us and getting acceptance for this is an important part of the education system. That has been done.
I did not conduct any such discussion in respect of secondary schools or post-primary schools. This is where I saw the problem. This is the problem that was brought to my door by concerned parents. At second level there is a different situation.
Catholic schools represent roughly half of the schools. There is far greater diversity in the post-primary area, and more choices are available to people. Bearing in mind the importance of introducing reform that is fair to everyone, I have taken care around consultation and the development of a proposal I believe has achieved broad acceptance and is, I believe, seen as a progressive step forward. The suggested next step, the Senator advocated, is to ensure that no school can use religion in any circumstances as a basis to refuse admission on the enactment of this legislation. We have not consulted around certain other elements of the Equal Status Act, including the section which permits a denominational school to refuse admission where it is proved that the refusal is necessary to maintain the ethos of the school. That is a very high bar, and to my knowledge it has never been used. It would only be possible to invoke it if it was proven that an individual student was hostile to the ethos of a particular school.
We are trying to accommodate, as fairly as possible, the diverse needs of our parent and pupil populations. This will evolve, of course, and we have to drive on with our patronage diversification projects. We also have to evolve policy. In this Bill I am also requiring schools to set out in their admissions policies how they will accommodate children who are exercising a constitutional right not to attend religious instruction. I have also indicated to schools operating under the mutli-denominational education and training board, ETB, banner at second level that they have an obligation to talk to the parents of pupils about what the parents want and to provide a real curricular option for children at second level in those schools as an alternative to religion. We are proceeding to introduce reform on a broad range of fronts, but I cannot accept the proposals the Senators are putting forward in respect of sections 28 and 51.
I understand what the Minister is trying to do. There are fundamental differences between us. I lived abroad for many years in countries such as Spain and Holland. A baptism barrier just would not exist in the Netherlands. The discussion, in terms of the separation of church and State, is something that will evolve over time. I agree with the Minister that we are not ready for such a debate yet, and more discussion is required. Society is changing, and part of the cultural problem is that many parents, because of a lack of choice, are being forced to send their children to schools which subscribe to a particular ethos. They have no real choice in terms of other schools in their neighbourhoods and so are finding themselves with no option but to choose a particular ethos. Obviously, the dominant ethos in Ireland is Catholicism.
I will not press the amendment, but I believe that in the coming months and years we will see a societal shift and that the legislation, in a short number of years, will have to reflect this type of amendment.
Is amendment No. 52 in this group?
It is. We have dealt with amendments Nos. 28, 51 and 52.
I believe Senator Ruane tabled amendment No. 52, which we have not discussed. Is it in order-----
It was supposed to have been done already, but the Minister can proceed. We were discussing amendments Nos. 28, 51 and 52. We had agreed to discuss them together, and that has been done. Does the Minister wish to respond to amendment No. 52?
I would like to speak. I did not hear amendment No. 52 being mentioned and thought that we were dealing only with the amendment put by Senator O'Sullivan.
I was not here at the start of this debate so I do not know how well it was articulated.
The Leas-Chathaoirleach did not say it properly.
The order sheet says that amendments Nos. 28, 51 and 52 are related and may be discussed by agreement. Apparently that was agreed. I was not here at the time so I am not going to say that it was said or was not said. I am going to exercise my discretion and allow Senator Ruane to speak on amendment No. 52.
The Senator is on her feet anyway.
I could ask the Senator to resume her seat, but I will not.
The Senator should not push her luck.
Amendment No. 52 concerns a review of minority religion discrimination. This amendment would cause a review of section 7(a) to be initiated within three to five years and allow us to see how the practice of minority religion schools being allowed to give priority to children of that minority religion in their admission policies works in practice, and inform us as to whether any legislative changes are required. I am back and forth on the idea of minority religions. I understand that some really small groupings within a culture require protections, but the question as to how this is done must be asked. Is the way we are currently protecting those religions the best way to do it? Will the Minister accept the amendment which seeks to carry out a review of this part of the Bill?
I have no objection to conducting a review. I may ask the Attorney General to look at the wording, but I have no objections to conducting a review. I believe that minority church schools are a part of the tapestry of the country, and we are right to seek to protect them. Many parents want access to such schools. The way this has been structured is important. We are not talking about the right of a school to protect its particular property, but rather the right of a child who wants access to a particular type of education. We are viewing this matter through the prism of the child, and feel that what we are doing here is proportionate, because we are protecting the child who would otherwise not have the option to partake in this type of education. I have no objection to a review, and I will revert on Report Stage with a wording to accommodate that.
I am happy to withdraw the amendment until we get to Report Stage.
We will deal with it when we get to amendment No. 52.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments Nos. 29 to 31, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 29:
In page 23, line 20, to delete “or”.
This issue has been highlighted by the Ombudsman for Children, the Irish Foster Care Association and by foster parents themselves. The amendments I am putting forward seek to protect children who are terminally ill and to reduce the stress on a child and his or her family at such a difficult time. I call on the Minister to allow that this amendment apply to refugee children and those in direct provision.
The UK, Canada, Australia and the USA all have specific legislation regarding children in care and school admissions. I welcome the many positive changes to our schools system being made in this Bill. One of the aims of the Bill is to abolish waiting lists, so that parents moving to a new area will not be discriminated against. Children in care face many disruptions in their personal lives. They do not have the advantage of being registered with schools at birth and may have to move several times while in State care. In November 2016 The Irish Times reported that one 13 year old boy in foster care was unable to find a school place for two years, despite applications to 28 schools in the surrounding areas.
Tusla has resorted to piloting a home tuition scheme as a result of the inability to gain access to local schools. That is the situation and it is why I believe these issues need to be dealt with in the Bill. I hope the Minister will consider the amendments favourably.
Has the Senator dealt with all the amendments?
The amendments are not properly drafted. This section is saying a school shall admit each student seeking admission and it lists exceptions which allows a school not to admit a student. As I read the Senator's amendment, it provides for an exception to not admit terminally-ill children. This particular section provides that a school shall admit each student save for a number of exceptions such as the school being oversubscribed or a parent not signing up to the code of behaviour. This amendment appears to allow a school not to have to admit a student who is terminally ill even if the school has available places. It is probable that the amendment has been drafted incorrectly and inserted into the incorrect subsection.
The substantive argument is that in the Bill I am providing both the NCSE and the education and welfare service or Tusla with a power to designate a school that should accept a child who may be terminally ill or who may need a placement because of he or she is in foster care. I have provided in the Bill the power for the NCSE or Tusla, as appropriate, to decide the needs of a child are such they will designate a school that should take the child. The legislation already provides for the power to place a child in a school overriding other admission considerations.
The way in which the amendments are drafted means they would be perverse in their operation. I think the Senator may have listed them in the wrong section because this section contains exclusions. The Bill, as drafted, is designed to cater for people who would present with particular needs and to provide that the NSCE or Tusla, as appropriate, would have those powers. Where those powers are exercised, in the case of NCSE the power would also come with the NCSE ensuring provision would be made for the child in terms of resource teaching or special needs support or whatever was required. The Senator's amendments are unnecessary.
As there might be some ambiguity, I will table the amendments again on Report Stage. I will examine them and get some more advice.
To clarify, Senator O'Sullivan is not pressing amendment No. 29.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendments Nos. 30 and 31 not moved.
Amendment No. 32 is in the name of Senators Gavan and Warfield. If amendment No. 32 is agreed, amendment No. 33 cannot be moved. Amendments Nos. 32 to 34, inclusive, along with amendments Nos. 36, 38 to 42, inclusive, and 44 are related. Amendment No. 33 is a physical alternative to amendment No. 32. Amendments Nos. 33, 34, 42 and 44, are consequential on amendment No. 38. Amendment No. 39 is a logical alternative to amendment No. 38. Amendments Nos. 32 to 34, inclusive, 36, 38 to 42, inclusive, and 44 may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Amendment No. 32 not moved.
Government amendment No. 33:
In page 23, line 39, to delete “subsection (8)” and substitute “subsections (8) and (9)”.
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 34:
In page 24, line 7, to delete “subsection (9)” and substitute “subsection (10)”.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendment No. 35 is in the names of Senators Ó Ríordáin, Bacik, Nash, Humphreys, Kelleher and Ruane.
I move amendment No. 35:
In page 24, line 9, to delete “school;” and substitute the following:
“school, or by virtue of his or her family relationship with a member of the board or a teacher or other member of the staff of the school;”.
The amendment speaks to an issue within the Bill which gives permanence-----
We are dealing with amendment No. 35 on its own.
I accept that. The amendment relates to the provision within the Bill that allows for children, grandchildren or family members of past pupils to be given a level of priority when seeking access to an oversubscribed school. There are two amendments on this in two different sections that relate to it but it is very much the same point.
This particular section makes the point about family members. It is connected with another section in the Bill. It is the same point I am trying to make. It is connected to the children and grandchildren issue which I will raise later. There is a provision in the Bill that 25% of places in schools can be reserved for children or grandchildren of past pupils. The Minister knows my point of view on this because I have raised it before. I do not feel it is right that children who are trying to access a school on the same basis as everyone else should be disadvantaged because they are not a family member of a past pupil. It is not an unreasonable proposition. It is completely unreasonable that it is in the Bill. It places certain children at a disadvantage to other children.
Nobody wants to have an oversubscribed school. Everybody wishes we could have places for everybody. In that scenario, what the Minister is proposing is that family members of past pupils should have priority. We are not talking about siblings. We have no difficulty with siblings. We are talking about children and grandchildren as is outlined in the Bill. Inevitably, if one's parents did not go to second-level school, as some people in the Chamber might be familiar with, or if one's grandparents did not go to second level school, which I am familiar with, one is at a disadvantage. If one is a Traveller child or does not come from the immediate area or from the country, one is also at a disadvantage.
The Minister may deny it but I will say anyway that these measures are in the Bill at the behest of the fee-paying private school sector because it has been lobbying every political party in the Oireachtas extensively for many years on the issue. The sector feels strongly about keeping a royal bloodline of succession going through its schools to maintain the old school network of fundraising. It means that sons and grandsons of former students of certain fee-paying boys' schools or daughters or granddaughters of certain fee-paying girls' schools can still have a connection with the school and still fundraise and all the rest of it. It is elitist, odious and wrong. It is only there at the behest of that sector.
I remind the Minister - he was at the Cabinet table - that the Labour Party vehemently opposed this measure under Deputy Jan O'Sullivan and tried to delete it. There was a compromise of 10% but this measure is the reason the legislation stalled and did not get past the Cabinet in the last Government. It is the reason we are only discussing it now.
While we all have to accept the constitutional reality about religion, etc., and there are measures in this Bill to try to change that, it is absolutely unconscionable that we would again allow the fee-paying private school sector to walk through the open door it seems to have with Cabinet members and get what it wants in this Bill. It is absolutely wrong. The Minister probably knows it is wrong. If he goes with this he will not get the emails from people in that sector.
Those people are very powerful and influential and they normally get what they want. In this Oireachtas we should facilitate a Bill that speaks to the majority. I think the majority of people in this country did not have a parent or grandparent who went to the same school and they would find the measure elitist and wrong. I am interested to hear the Minister's comments as I will press the amendment. It will be interesting to see how other people react to it and I will call out those who do not support this. I feel more strongly about this measure than anything else in the Bill.
I will not go all out like Senator Ó Ríordáin has with respect to the private school element. However, the quota goes in the wrong direction.
It is fee-charging rather than private schools.
I defer to the southsider on that score.
They are all inspected and funded by the State to a greater or lesser degree. They are not private institutions.
I will speak from the other end of the southside.
The Irish language is important to me, despite not having any Irish. It is so important I ensured my daughter could get access to a Gaelscoil and I hope in September of this year to take up my place in Maynooth to learn Irish. I am not very optimistic about my ability but I will definitely give it one final shot.
Growing up I knew something was missing from what I gained in school. I felt that my language was missing and I felt very attached to something I could not even speak. I felt really hard done by in how weak the English stream schools are in enhancing the speaking of Irish in students. In saying that, I know I was an early school leaver so it may have been impossible to teach me anything at that stage. I held on to the ambition to want to speak Irish.
Anybody who appreciates the Irish language wants to be in a position where we could move to being a bilingual nation. That should be the effort but when we create elitism through quotas involving parents and grandparents, we are isolating language and making it inaccessible to a large portion of society. My daughter is fluent in Irish and I want her to create a family of Irish speakers. If she speaks Irish at home with her children I will have broken the trend of not having access to our national language.
Quotas should be introduced when people are at a disadvantage rather than when they are already at an advantage. If a parent or grandparent has a high level of education and access to language, the child in question is already at an advantage in society. I fully support the amendment, which I have co-signed, but I speak more to the section in general. I indicate my intention to introduce an amendment on Report Stage relating to quotas for admissions of students who do not have Irish as a home language to Irish language schools. This uses the quota in another way, leading to positive discrimination.
I rang around to Irish schools yesterday asking about definitions. They have a 10% quota for minority groups but Scoil Chaitlín Maude, which Jaylynn attends, does not adhere to any of those guidelines, so most of its students have absolutely no Irish within their families. It wants to expand Irish across communities. Other communities may not be as fortunate in more middle class environments. Some of the schools placed in more disadvantaged areas recognise the educational disadvantage of parents coming through a school. I will leave it at that but on Report Stage I will table an amendment to have a quota from the other direction relating to socioeconomic and educational disadvantage in parents, particularly the lack of the Irish language in the family.
I remind Members we are only discussing amendment No. 35.
My points relate to the entire section.
As we are dealing with amendment No. 35, I will come back to the Senator at a later stage. In theory, everybody should have discussed amendments Nos. 32, 34, 36, 38 to 42, inclusive, and 44 earlier but nobody offered to speak and we got past them. I will exercise a level of discretion and we are finishing in five minutes anyway for this afternoon.
I thought we were discussing the other amendments.
I noted that but as I was listening intently, I decided not to interrupt the Senator.
I was wondering when she was going to refer to the amendment.
Senator Ó Ríordáin was intrigued.
I express my party's support for this motion. Senator Ó Ríordáin is correct that this comes down to class and this is a convenient way of keeping boys and girls from the less well-off backgrounds, in a socioeconomic sense, out of schools that have traditionally kept out such pupils. I challenge the Minister as people across all parties aspire to republican principles. This policy flies in the face of that. I have already acknowledged that the Minister is thoughtful and he has taken on board constructive suggestions so he really should not stand over this. It would send a dreadful signal. I wonder how many members of the current Cabinet went to a private school. It would be interesting to reflect on that. Let us do the right thing and take on board this amendment.
This amendment prohibits oversubscribed schools from prioritising the children of staff or board of management members in an admissions policy. It is a reasonable position that an oversubscribed school may give priority to children of staff where it wishes to do so. For example, there is the perspective of facilitating families and it appears sensible that a teacher working in a school distant from his or her home could also have his or her children attend the school rather than having to make arrangements for them to attend elsewhere. I understand this arrangement does not apply to other workers but, on balance and having regard to the need to retain and support our teachers in their work, it is reasonable to allow schools to give such a priority if they so wish. This is not an obligation and they have that option. With regard to prohibiting prioritisation of children of board members, I am not aware of any evidence that this is a practice used by schools. In any case it would, if used, have very little, if any, impact on admission in most schools. I do not consider that these matters cause a problem in school admission.
I recall that this matter was raised by Deputy Brendan Ryan on Committee Stage. I asked the Deputy at the time to provide any evidence he may have on the matter or whether this was a problem in school admission policies. He had the opportunity to do so up to Report Stage last month but I did not receive any such evidence. I cannot agree to the amendment.
The Committee divided: Tá, 12; Níl, 31.
- Bacik, Ivana.
- Black, Frances.
- Devine, Máire.
- Gavan, Paul.
- Higgins, Alice-Mary.
- Kelleher, Colette.
- Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
- Norris, David.
- O'Sullivan, Grace.
- Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
- Ó Ríordáin, Aodhán.
- Ruane, Lynn.
- Burke, Colm.
- Burke, Paddy.
- Butler, Ray.
- Buttimer, Jerry.
- Byrne, Maria.
- Clifford-Lee, Lorraine.
- Coffey, Paudie.
- Coghlan, Paul.
- Conway, Martin.
- Craughwell, Gerard P.
- Daly, Paul.
- Feighan, Frank.
- Gallagher, Robbie.
- Hopkins, Maura.
- Horkan, Gerry.
- Lawless, Billy.
- Lawlor, Anthony.
- Leyden, Terry.
- Marshall, Ian.
- McDowell, Michael.
- Mulherin, Michelle.
- Murnane O'Connor, Jennifer.
- Noone, Catherine.
- O'Donnell, Kieran.
- O'Mahony, John.
- O'Reilly, Joe.
- O'Sullivan, Ned.
- Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
- Reilly, James.
- Richmond, Neale.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Colette Kelleher and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin; Níl, Senators Kieran O'Donnell and John O'Mahony.
Amendment declared lost.
Progress reported; Committee to sit again.