Amendment Nos. 202 , 203 and 204 may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed. How stands amendment No. 202?
Education (No. 2) Bill, 1997: Committee Stage (Resumed).
The Minister responded to the amendment.
The Deputy and I were in disagreement.
I was essentially seeking some expansion on the range of deeds, charters, articles of management and other instruments relating to the establishment or operations of the schools. Is there an entire plethora of agreements in existence and do different arrangements operate in many schools? What will be the effect of this legislation on those?
Existing agreements entered into by the partners would be copperfastened by the Bill, not undermined by it. We are principally dealing with the deeds of variation which have been drawn up by primary school partners in respect of school management. In respect of community schools, we are dealing with the deed of trust formulated many years ago by the parties involved in the formation and establishment of community schools. An Act of the Oireachtas governs the formation of the vocational education committees. Articles of agreement exist in regard to agreements between management and staff which relate, in particular, to industrial relations issues and terms and conditions. That process will not be undermined by the Bill.
Where do charters exist?
Charters exist in some Church of Ireland schools.
How far back do they date? Are they kings' charters?
Yes, they are. I visited Kilkenny college recently; I do not know if it has a charter but it has an extraordinary history, as has Middleton college. According to Deputy Carey, Dundalk Grammar School also has a charter. We are attempting to cover every eventuality as there is a rich diversity of school types in Ireland and it is important we would not inadvertently override school agreements or founding documents. Some of the partners made representations to the Department on this issue, particularly following the publication of the Education (No. 1) Bill. Community schools, in particular, were concerned that no reference had been made to their deeds of trust.
My amendment No. 203 was somewhat different. The Minister pointed to section 16 from which I suggested the removal of the Minister's involvement in consenting to dissolutions. It would not seem to be desirable for the Minister to become involved if a patron decides a board has good and valid reasons, stated in writing, for its position. What is the rationale behind that?
We are discussing amendment No. 202.
Amendment Nos. 202, 203 and 204 are being discussed together.
Amendment No. 203 relates to the upholding of the characteristic spirit of a school.
I was suggesting the deletion of the patrons' additional accountability over and above their rights in regard to board appointment. What is the meaning of this additional accountability from the point of view of the practical operations of a board? It seems to be somewhat redundant. The patron holds the ultimate power of dissolution. The Minister's defence was that dissolution could occur only with the Minister's consent. It is not ideal that the Minister should be sucked into consenting to individual decisions of this nature. It might be better to remove the ministerial consent from the dissolution section and, as a quid pro quo, remove the additional accountability or the second line of defence the patron appears to have in respect of these characteristic spirit issues.
As I explained yesterday, there is a sense, from the patron's perspective, that the process leading to the Green and White Papers and the establishment of boards of management, particularly at primary level, represented a considerable ceding of what they believe is their traditional authority over schools. They are anxious that the characteristic spirit or ethos which informed the foundation of the school will not be abandoned willy-nilly by any future board of management. The reason the subsection was inserted was to deal with the concern articulated by patrons in respect of the characteristic spirit of the school, not in respect of other areas pertaining to the management of the school.
I accept that with regard to religion in religious schools. However, I am not sure it should apply to educational issues.
It does not cover that.
The characteristic spirit of the school is determined by the cultural, educational, linguistic——
We are trying to cover a difficult area——
It is a difficult issue.
Every school has a different characteristic spirit. Some are informed by sport.
What if, for example, a school was unwilling to provide leaving certificate vocational education? The school could claim that its characteristic spirit had always been academic and it could not offer opportunities to pupils who have vocational needs. Could a patron argue that the school has the right to determine these things because the board is accountable to the patron for such matters?
No, it would not involve that detail. The operational management of the school is a matter for the board of management.
So the characteristic spirit clause would not permit a patron to overrule the board in this respect?
I am concerned that these charters could affect the rights of teachers and pupils. The patron might have residual rights in some instances which could contravene other rights.
In the event of a legal dispute on this or a conflict involving a deed or charter and the Bill, the Bill would take precedence. The principal deeds which we are discussing, with the exception of the charters, have been agreed by the partners in any event and have been operated by the partners with the consent of all the partners. I do not envisage a conflict.
Rights, working conditions and pay conditions are determined by existing contracts and arrangements between the management bodies and, for example, the trade unions representing teachers. A later provision in the Bill protects existing conditions with regard to the employment of school staff. They will not be worse off as a result of this Bill being passed because it contains considerable protections.
Is the Minister assuring the committee that a person's rights regarding his or her conscience cannot be interfered with in this context? Will difficulties arise where there are no boards of management but there might be a deed or charter? If there is no board of management there is no layer between the principal and teachers in a school and the patron.
The right to protect one's conscience is guaranteed and it will not be undermined. I am not clear about the Deputy's latter point.
What if there is no board of management?
All arrangements that are in place before the enactment of the Bill will continue in force after its passage until a board of management is established.
A right that is not protected where there is no board of management is the right of teachers and parents to be part of the management structure. A patron could be quite remote from what is happening in the school and if there is no board of management, there would be no onus on the patron to consult with anybody.
Yes, but it is predicated on the establishment of boards of management and patrons will have to satisfy the Department that it is not practicable to establish a board.
The Minister's legal advice is, therefore, that this section does not in any way undermine the rights of staff in respect of pay and conditions and the rights of staff and parents in respect of conscience?
I move amendment No. 204:
In page 17, subsection (2)(b), line 23, after "any" to insert "Act of the Oireachtas or instrument made thereunder,".
I move amendment No. 205:
In page 17, subsection (2)(d), line 30, after "school" to insert ", including admission to and participation by students with disabilities or who have other special educational needs,".
There was concern among groups involved in the education of people with disabilities that some schools are reluctant to make provision for students with special needs, even where resources are available. The aim of amendment No. 205 is to address this concern by requiring schools to include policies for students with disabilities or special educational needs in their admissions policies.
I move amendment No. 206:
In page 17, subsection (2)(d), line 30, after "school" to insert "(including policies governing suspensions and exclusions)".
This amendment seeks to make explicit what is often an unsatisfactory element of admissions policy, the issue of suspensions and exclusions from the school. The Minister said that no school can exclude a student under the age of 15 years unless or until it has an alternative placement for that student. However, that is not the reality. The Minister's legal advice on this matter might be shaky. It is certainly hotly disputed.
I intend to accept the amendment subject to rewording it on Report Stage.
The area is unsatisfactory and it is no harm to take the opportunity presented by this Bill to examine it. The Minister can then develop a response to the individual policies of schools in this area. The issue must be addressed and I thank him for accepting the principle of the amendment.
I move amendment No. 207:
In page 17, subsection (2)(d), line 35, after "regard to" to insert "the characteristic spirit of the school and".
There is a perception that the Bill does not adequately provide for the fact that characteristic spirit, particularly the denominational ethos, of the school is a legitimate factor in the formulation of admissions policies. The amendment recognises the importance of the characteristic spirit of the school and provides for this characteristic spirit to be a legitimate factor for schools to consider when determining their admissions policies.
I accept the amendment in principle. However, what are the limitations? Is an element of reasonableness imposed?
Yes, they must act reasonably. We had this difficulty when we reached the discussions on this matter with regard to primary schools. That was one of the outstanding issues which had to be brought to a conclusion last autumn. It stems from the ultimate concern, particularly among minorities, that population decline could lead to schools being undermined denominationally. They want these safeguards included to protect that because of certain demographic situations. In fairness, they have never practised an exclusive admissions policy. Church of Ireland schools, while anxious to attain this safeguard, have, in practice, admitted non-Church of Ireland children.
Was this included in the Equal Status Bill? Is there an established legal basis for this? That Bill set out the reasonableness issue in relation to minority schools.
That Bill allowed for positive discrimination in terms of protecting ethos and was subsequently upheld. It went to the Supreme Court.
It allowed for positive discrimination in a less comprehensive way than the Minister's amendment. There does not seem to be a test of reasonableness in this amendment, whereas in the Equal Status Bill there was. Text was agreed which balanced the right of the student and the right of the school to maintain its ethos. This is a more blanket assurance.
I take the Deputy's point. Section 15(2)(d) states ". . . having regard to the constitutional rights of all persons concerned,". My amendment proposes, after "regard to", to insert "the characteristic spirit of the school and". We may insert a phrase covering reasonableness on Report Stage.
A reasonable balance was struck in the Equal Status Bill, and it seems strange to undo that.
Section 15(2)(b) states ". . . the characteristic spirit of the school as determined by the cultural, educational, moral, religious, social, linguistic and spiritual values and traditions. . . ". If the characteristic spirit is determined by that, is there a possibility that the Minister's amendment could be used as an excuse to refuse a child admission to a school for traditional reasons so that children could be recruited from a particular social class?
Is the reason for the amendment to safeguard characteristic spirit in perpetuity?
The concern emanated from minority groups in particular. On Report Stage I may bring forward an amendment to provide for a review mechanism in terms of admission policy. There will be a legislative option to revisit, if it emerges that these sections are abused.
I am concerned about where there would be no boards of management in the future.
I move amendment No. 208:
In page 17, subsection (2)(e), line 39, after "traditions" to insert ", languages".
I move amendment No. 209:
In page 17, subsection (2)(g), lines 46 and 47, to delete "within the resources provided to the school in accordance with section 12,".
The provision for students with special needs should not be subject to restriction. This amendment proposes to delete "within the resources provided to the school in accordance with section 12".
We have already discussed this amendment. Is it being pressed?
I move amendment No. 211:
In page 17, subsection (2)(g), line 46, to delete "within" and substitute "use".
The Minister said he would look at this on Report Stage.
Amendments Nos. 213, 224 and 229 are related and may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 213:
In page 17, subsection (2)(g), line 47, after "provision" to insert "in accordance with the principle of equality of rights".
Section 15(2)(g) states: "within the resources provided to the school in accordance with section 12, make reasonable provision and accommodation for students with special educational needs".
I put down my amendment in the context of students with special needs, those with a disability or those who are emotionally disturbed or dysfunctional, whose education requires the deployment of resources above and beyond those required for mainstream pupils.
The principle behind all aspects of this legislation is equality of rights and treatment. The Deputy's amendments are overstatements and I am satisfied the Bill covers them. If the Deputy is anxious to have them included, we will go back to the parliamentary draftsman on Report Stage to see if we can incorporate his amendment. I am not sure the present wording would be satisfactory.
I move amendment No. 214:
In page 17, subsection (2)(g), line 48, after "needs" to insert "including the alteration of buildings and equipment so as to provide equality of access for students with a disability".
This amendment relates to section 15(2)(g) which will read: ". . . make reasonable provision and accommodation for students with special educational needs including the alteration of buildings and equipment so as to provide equality of access for students with a disability."
This is fundamental in capital terms as to how schools should respond to the requirements of children with special needs, for instance, the adaptation of toilet facilities, access to rooms and so on.
I accept that, subject to drafting on Report Stage. Amendment No. 205, which deals with support services and means of access to schools, will be covered. The amendment reads ", including admission to and participation by students with disabilities or who have other special educational needs,".
Amendment No. 288 to section 33 has already been accepted by the committee. It makes specific reference to "access to schools and centres for education by students with disabilities or who have other special educational needs, including matters relating to reasonable accommodation and technical aid and equipment for such students" which I thought would have embraced that. The Deputy is being more specific in terms of the physical buildings. I have no difficulty with that. It is being implemented as a matter of current policy and can be included in the Bill.
I move amendment No. 215:
In page 17, subsection (2)(g), line 48, after "needs" to insert "in accordance with the presumption that students will be placed in the least restrictive environment".
The Minister may see this as overkill to an extent, but I am anxious that the legislation should include a clear message that the needs of special needs pupils are being accommodated in every possible way .
In fairness, that is being done under my amendments Nos. 28, 205 and 288 and amendment 214. The language in the Deputy's amendment is very difficult . I do not know what it means or what it could potentially mean. In fairness, we have gone a good distance.
It might be in a child's interest that a particular classroom be used by that child's group rather than another one.
We are going into extraordinary detail for legislation.
Yes, but we are also looking at the rights of the most disadvantaged in our education system.
Amendment No. 214, which states, ". . . the alteration of buildings and equipment so as to provide equality of access for students. . . " covers that point. Ideally, if a child does not have the necessary physical facilities, the school should apply to ensure he or she will get them.
In light of the Minister's response to amendments Nos. 213 and 214, I withdraw the amendment.
Amendments No. 215a , 215b and 271 are related and may be taken together by agreement. Agreed.
I move amendment No. 215a:
In page 17, subsection (2), between lines 48 and 49, to insert the following:
"(h) ensure that the rights of conscience of children from families who do not share the ethos of the school are respected in all school activities.".
I am seeking to protect the rights of conscience of parents and indeed of students. Amendment No. 215b reads ". . . that children at the school do not receive instruction in a religion which does not have the approval of their parents, and that children from families who do not share the particular ethos of the school are not discriminated against.". Essentially, the safeguards here are in terms of rights of conscience.
The constitutional rights of all persons are included in section 15 (2)(d) which states "publish, in such manner as the board with the agreement of the patron considers appropriate, the policy of the school concerning admission to and participation in the school and ensure that as regards that policy principles of equality and the right of parents to send their children to a school of the parents' choice are respected and such directions as may be made from time to time by the Minister, having regard to the constitutional rights of all persons concerned, are complied with" and (e) which states "have regard to the principles and requirements of a democratic society and have respect and promote respect for the diversity of values, beliefs, traditions and ways of life in society,".
Section 6 sets out the objects which are concerned with the implementation of the Act and under one of those objects regard must be had to the basic quality of access to and participation in education. Section 30(2)(d) provides that the Minister "shall not require any student to attend instruction in any subject which is contrary to the conscience of the parent of the student or in the case of a student who has reached the age of 18 years, the student".
The provisions in the Bill provide very strong protection for students who attend schools which operate on the basis of values and beliefs which are different from theirs. I do not see the need for an additional provision.
In this case we are dealing with the functions of the board of management and how it carries them out.
I have no great objection, in principle, to this and will consider it on Report Stage. We are all anxious to ensure the rights of people are protected.
Section 15 sets out a series of functions, but where there is no board of management, on whom does the obligation fall to deal with matters such as publishing admissions policies and so on?
It could be the board of management, the board of governors, the manager, the owner or the patron of a school.
Is it not unusual that the Bill does not recognise that? Should section 15(2) not provide for circumstances where there is no board in place?
It is included in Section 14(3) which reads "Pending the establishment of a board as provided for by subsection (1) the persons who have responsibilities under the structures and systems in place in a school for the management of that school at the commencement of this Part, including boards of governors, shall, as appropriate, discharge the functions of a board under this Act."
I move amendment No. 216.
In page 18, subsection (7), line 1, to delete "and to the consent of the Minister,".
This arises where the patron decides for good and valid reasons to state in writing that a member of the board should be removed or if the board is not functioning properly the Minister is deciding his consent is also required. In a decentralised system, why is ministerial consent necessary when the section already provides protection by including "good and valid reasons"? In other words, these decisions cannot be taken whimsically or on a discriminatory basis by patrons. Is there a need for ministerial consent over and above the protections of the section?
I think there is. It is an ultimate safeguard to the other partners in the event of a patron acting unreasonably or attempting to dissolve a board. The ultimate legislative safeguard requires the consent of a Minister to dissolve a board.
Rather than have it litigated, the Minister feels this is a better way to go. Are all partners on board for this process?
Yes; that is current practice.
This refers to a member of a board as distinct from the entire board. Does good and valid reasons mean, for instance, removing somebody from a board who obviously acted in an illegal or unethical way? Is that what is envisaged?
The dismissal of a person from a board would have to be on those grounds. Of course, people attempt to dismiss members for other reasons. As we all know, nature is not an exact science.
I take it there will be guidelines for boards of management in this regard?
The deeds of variation are interesting. What is proposed here reflects what has been agreed by the partners at primary level. I know of one instance in which difficulties arose and the six months provision was invoked. It is a good thing that the Minister can intervene as an ultimate last resort and can stand back from the conflicts that arise, perhaps from personality clashes. The Minister can often resolve the issue with the help of the national partners.
I do not have a problem with the Minister being involved, because there should be an avenue to protect individual board members. My concern is that there should be some guidelines so that a personality clash or prejudice cannot result in somebody being removed from a board.
The Minister could do that subsequently by regulation, but that would be subject to agreement by the partners. One is entering a territory where it is difficult to lay down precise guidelines governing the dismissal of a person or board.
One of the amendments accepted yesterday provided for that in principle. This could be addressed by way of guidelines to boards of management. I accept it is difficult to be prescriptive in these areas but the protection of the Minister is important.
I move amendment No. 217:
In page 18, subsection (7), line 32, to delete "six" and substitute "three".
This is a matter of time span. I believe that if a board of management has dissolved, it will lead to instability. The sooner the situation is resolved, the better. A six month period during which the patron is given the opportunity to put things together could be reduced to three months.
The six months limit is an upper time limit. It does not preclude a resolution within one or two months of the breakdown. Before the Minister or other third parties intervene, it is often necessary to allow for tensions to ease and tempers to cool. That prepares the ground for a proper, lasting resolution rather than a quick fix. Dissolution represents a serious breakdown between partners at local level or between principal personalities. A time to allow these to ease off and to allow people to reflect is a good thing. I accept that the downside is that this can lead to instability and uncertainty, possibly demoralising a school community if the management is in limbo. Where possible it is desirable that matters be resolved within six months. This time provision is an upper time limit.
This is a judgment call. I feel that a time limit focuses minds on resolution, though I accept that cooling off periods can be important. I am not hung up on this amendment.
There are cases where the time limit does not focus minds.
Each case is individual.
Sometimes I have to get involved.
My reason for tabling this amendment is to reach a speedy resolution.
We are not precluding ourselves from doing that. The Deputy is right in that that is the desired approach.
I move amendment No. 218:
In page 19, subsection (1), line 8, to delete "A board" and substitute "Except in the case of a school established or maintained by a vocational education committee, a board".
Section 18 provides for boards of management to maintain accounts of expenditure and income and that those accounts be available to inspection by the Minister. In so far as it relates to public funds, this provision is designed to ensure transparency and accountability in the education system and is one of a number of provisions in the Bill with this end in view. This is a technical amendment which addresses VEC schools where committees have statutory responsibility for all funds. It would be unnecessary to impose double statutory accounting requirements on such schools so the amendment accordingly exempts such schools from the provisions of the section.
Amendments Nos. 219 and 220 are related and may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 219:
In page 19, subsection (1), line 11, to delete "properly audited".
The Minister seems to be modifying his position on this and that would meet this concern. The issue here concerns the requirement of an audit for small schools which seem to impose an unreasonable burden, and my amendment suggests removing that in favour of those schools presenting their accounts in accordance with best accounting practice. The Minister now suggests "certified" instead of "audited". I do not know what that means, but my amendment proposes observation of best accounting practice which presumably requires certification of certain elements of the returns.
Amendment No. 220 goes a long way toward meeting Deputy Bruton's concerns and those of some of the partners that we should not be too onerous in our requirements for some small schools.
So "certified" means this could be done by a parent who is an accountant?
We sought advice from the accountancy profession on this, and this is a much less intense process than an audit. It would still be done by an accountant, though presumably by a local accountant.
What is current practice?
Current practice varies. Some schools do not have audited accounts, and the principal produces accounts for the board of management.
I move amendment No. 220:
In page 19, subsection (1), line 11, after "audited" to insert "or certified".
Subsection (2) refers to accounts kept in pursuance of this section being made available by the school concerned for inspection by the Minister in so far as those accounts relate to moneys provided in accordance with section 12. That section relates to money provided by the Oireachtas. Many schools raise considerable funds. Why is there no requirement for inspection of how funds come into the ownership of boards of management?
It would be a requirement within the school. The board of management would require accountability for money it raised itself. A board could say that if it is raising money for the school it can tell the Minister it is none of his business to audit it. This covers schools which raise large elements of finance outside State finance.
The Minister requires boards to audit, but they are not required to report.
That is correct. It is a minor matter. Boards feel that if they have raised money, why should they report to the Minister?
They might not have raised the money. It could be donated or there could be a separate finance committee.
The finance committee would be established under the auspices of the board of management. It would be a sub-committee of the board.
Could the students' union raise funds and pass on the money? It is always prudent to keep a close watch on the disbursement of moneys.
This is returning to the issue of why we are establishing boards of management to run and manage schools. We expect them to do so in accordance with basic common practice, which obviously involves proper accounting and accountability in respect of moneys raised. The onus is on the board of management to ensure any moneys raised privately, collected or donated are accounted for properly.
However, there is no requirement on the board of management——
Our fundamental requirement is that any State money made available to schools is accounted for properly and reported back to the Department and the Minister acting on behalf of the Oireachtas.
I move amendment No. 221:
In page 19, between lines 34 and 35, to insert the following subsection:
"(5) Where either the Minister or a patron proposes to exercise functions under this section then—
(a) the Minister shall inform the patron, or
(b) the patron shall inform the Minister, as appropriate, of the proposed course of action.".
Section 19 provides that where the Minister or the patron is of the opinion that the functions of a board of management are not being effectively discharged and the board has been informed to that effect and any representations considered, the Minister or the patron may authorise any person to report on any matter pertaining to the operations of the board. Amendment No. 221 provides that the patron and the Minister will keep each other informed in the event that either of them seeks a report under section 19 on the operation of a board or appoints a person to report on that operation. This will serve to ensure there is complete transparency in the unlikely event that either the Minister or patron wishes to initiate a report on the operation of a board of management.
I move amendment No. 222:
In page 19, line 37, to delete "may" and substitute "shall".
This amendment concerns the report to parents. The Bill, as drafted, states the board will establish procedures for informing parents, but leaves optional the publication and circulation to parents of a report on the operation and performance of the school in any year. The discussion we have just had on section 18 underlines the importance of an annual report; if a school is raising substantial funds from parents, it has a duty to report to parents on how those moneys were deployed.
I accept the Minister does not require under section 18 that those accounts be presented to him. However, the parents who raise the money are entitled to an annual report. The argument will be advanced that reporting to parents could prove very onerous on schools. However, a school's most important duty is the operation and performance of the school and to be accountable to parents, who are their prime point of service. I am puzzled by the watering down of the provisions in the other Bill in this regard. This is a retrograde step. We should encourage schools to have a structured dialogue with parents and oblige them to report to parents. That would be good practice and should be encouraged.
I do not agree with the Deputy. Section 20 places a specific obligation on boards to establish procedures for informing parents of matters relating to the operation and performance of the school. This is an obligation over which the school has no discretion. The school has discretion, however, over the manner in which boards provide such information to parents. There are many more effective ways of providing information to parents than by the publication of an annual report. As I said yesterday, I am not convinced an annual report is the most effective mechanism. People seem to think that compiling a report and sending it to everyone concerned does the job but that is a very passive mechanism. In my view, requiring, for example, a principal of a three or four teacher school to publish a report for parents is missing the point. There should be regular parent-school meetings and regular procedures for informing parents about what is happening in the school, rather than a token annual report. It would also involve considerable expense.
I have been through this at local authority level. I was shocked at my first estimates committee meeting of Cork Corporation to learn the manager had brought in a consultant to prepare an annual report. That report did not tell me anything I did not already know. The information could easily have been provided in a photocopy, but that would not have looked well. I do not think reports add to or detract from the process, which should be much more proactive. I do not want to place such a burden on schools.
To put it another way, if the Minister were a member of Cork Corporation, would he not be outraged if the manager did not report to him on the corporation's annual accounts and how it was run for the year? Would he not be the first to the ramparts to say——
No, I would not.
——one cannot run any organisation if one is not willing to report annually? For example, Fine Gael admits -as I suspect does Fianna Fáil — cumainn with as few as nine members but we insist constitutionally that they have treasurers and provide accounts on their operation.
Schools are raising money from volunteers, for which they are accountable. The Minister should insist that where parents, who are partners in the schools, have contributed to raising funds such parents have an absolute right to see an annual report on how those funds are being deployed. They also have a right to the areas where the Minister rightly sees schools should——
The amendment relates to an annual report on all issues.
Yes, the Minister——
I have no difficulty in terms of reports of accounts because parents are on boards of management.
The Minister dismissed the accounts report produced by the Cork city manager as meaningless. He said he did not want such reports.
The Deputy's amendment refers to more than just the accounts.
Of course it does, but the——
Has the Deputy ever read the annual report of any corporation? Did it tell him anything he did not already know? Let us be frank about this and call a spade a spade. A great deal of PR——
Has the Minister ever read the ESB's report?
Of course, I have read them all. We get hundreds of reports. I do not know how many rain forests have been destroyed to produce annual reports.
The ESB annual report used to provide superb information about the operation of the board. I am sorry the practice to which the Minister referred is on the increase, whereby the annual report is reduced to a simple accountancy report which is meaningless to 90 per cent of the population. Over the years, the ESB has reduced the value of its annual reports to a point where, as the Minister said, many of them are anodyne and addressed to fellow accountants.
The Minister is right to establish procedures for informing parents but we must, at a minimum, have an annual report. Most parents contribute at least £100 to their school annually and they have a right to see how that money is deployed and whether the school is achieving the objectives it set itself. An annual report is the most minimalist position the Minister can adopt. Every voluntary body which runs social events is required to produce an annual report. However, the Minister is saying that schools, which determine the future of our children, can report once every five years or whenever they wish. This is not professional. Professional reporting standards are needed in schools, not to create burdens but to underline there are important issues about which parents must be informed each year. If he wishes, the Minister can develop simple models as to how this can be done. I am in favour of simplicity and clarity so people, regardless of their background, can understand what is being presented. It is a fundamental issue that schools, which are one of the most important agents in the development of this country, should not be the only group in our society which do not produce annual reports on their activities and accounts.
Schools are obliged under this Bill to produce a plan which is a far more meaningful exercise than publishing a report.
How many Cork plans does the Minister think were valuable documents?
With respect, the Land Use and Transportation Study, LUTS, is the best produced plan by a local authority.
What about Luas?
Dublin Corporation did not produce a plan. We will not discuss local authority matters.
The Minister has had good innings on it.
The school plan is a very proactive exercise involving all the partners. Section 20 places a specific obligation on boards to establish procedures for informing parents of matters relating to the operational performance of the school. I envisage that it would be much more regular than the annual reporting. There would be frequent meetings of parents with the school board of management. Parents have the right under this Bill to elect parents to the board of management who will be involved in managing the school and will obviously have rights not only of access but also to draw up procedures on informing parents. Schools may come up with different formats and mechanisms for reporting to parents which would be far better than the annual report mechanism.
On accounts and financial matters I will have no difficulty in bringing forward an amendment on Report Stage to put an obligation on boards to prepare statements of accounts for parents in respect of moneys raised and so on. I am interested in the overall ongoing contact with parents.
The Minister's willingness to have financial accounts presented shows the bankruptcy of his thinking in this area. It is pathetic.
How stands the amendment?
I am pressing it.
- Bruton, Richard
- Farrelly, John
- Hayes, Brian
- Naughten, Denis
- O’Shea, Brian
- Brennan, Mattie
- Carey, Pat
- Ellis, John
- Hanafin, Mary
- Keaveney, Cecilia
- Martin, Micheál
- Moloney, John
- Wade, Eddie.
I move amendment No. 223:
In page 19, line 38, after "teachers" to insert ", a student council where one exists".
This was discussed with amendment No. 150, which I agreed to accept. Perhaps, the Deputy could accept an amendment which would read:
On page 19, line 38, after "staff" to insert "and to a student council where one has been established".
Is this oral amendment acceptable?
Amendments Nos. 226 and 227 are related to amendment No. 225 and all may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 225:
In page 19, subsection (1), lines 44 to 46, to delete "make arrangements for the preparation of further plans at intervals of not more than five years" and substitute "ensure that the plan is regularly reviewed and updated".
Section 21 provides that each board of management will prepare a school plan at the earliest opportunity following the appointment of the board. The school plan will be prepared in accordance with directions which will be issued by the Minister. This amendment addresses a procedural issue. The aim is, rather than provide for a fixed period during which school plans must be prepared, which might have been impractical, to make a more flexible provision, but with the requirement that reviews and updates occur regularly. In this way the requirement for accountability and transparency is met while at the same time an intolerable burden is not placed on schools.
I am prepared to examine amendment No. 226 before Report Stage. It would provide that each board would adopt its own procedures for the operation of its school plan following consultation with the inspectorate and the partners. I have no great difficulty with that other than we are still at an early stage in some schools in terms of the planning process. I will produce an alternative amendment on Report Stage. Amendment No. 227 involves too much detail and I am not prepared to accept it. Procedures and directions will issue to boards of management and, obviously, we will discuss those regulations with the partners.
It is unsatisfactory that the content of the plan is left to ministerial regulation. We should attempt to delineate in the Bill what are the minimum requirements of the plan. It should be a meaningful process where the schools and partners take a serious look at issues that are of importance in schools. My amendment attempts to provide a model for that. It is too important to leave to a ministerial regulation about which we have heard nothing. The plan is probably the most important concept being introduced by the Bill where schools will start to look seriously at the way in which they organises themselves, the policies they operate, how they deliver service to students and serve parents. It is important this process is meaningful and schools do not produce meaningless reports, such as that of Cork Corporation referred to by the Minister, that do not engage in serious policy issues that need to be addressed in schools.
I drafted this off the top of my head and do not pretend that it is the most comprehensive or best format, but in the absence of an alternative from the Minister it is a better effort and requires the school to define its objectives; appraise the resources it uses; look at student intake and admissions policy, including the provisions made for students with special needs; examine the policies that influence the quality of education, which are numerous; consult teachers, students, parents and others in the school community on the main elements of the school's activities and then come up with a series of objectives and targets and the strategies it will adopt to achieve those. A model of this nature needs to be developed. I am unhappy the Minister said this is work for another day which he will do in the vastness of Marlborough Street.
I want the Minister to return on Report Stage with some indicative thinking about what the plan will involve which could be included in a loose format in the Bill, but nonetheless outlining what a school will be expected to do in the context of preparing and implementing a school plan.
The basic difference here is one of approach. I want to develop this in consultation with the partners in the context of the regulations that would be issued after the publication of the Bill. There is also the issue of endeavouring to maintain flexibility into the future. We do not want to set things in stone in legislation. As a mechanism, regulations allow for flexibility. This includes allowing future Ministers greater flexibility in terms of the refinement of school plans or the broad guidelines and principles that should inform them and in terms of the regular updating of the procedures and guidelines. That is why I am opting for the regulations mechanism as opposed to putting it down in legislation. There is a no question of delaying matters.
There has been a huge process of consultation involved in this Bill. These regulations would, of necessity, also have to involve the partners. They may have their own ideas as to what should be included in the school plan. I am not sure we should pre-empt that in legislation. We should wait for that process to happen
I am not seeking a pre-emption or an exclusive list of things that will happen. I am happy for the Minister to give himself discretion to develop his thinking. The Bill contains 51 sections and goes into immense detail about the functions and responsibilities of schools and boards. However, the Minister has not worked to make meaningful the one active mechanism that will breath life into this. While he may not agree, he knows the school inspectorate should be party to this planning process.
The issue of resourcing strategies should not be left to the school on its own. The Minister should recognise there is a role at departmental level if a school recognises it has a large cohort of disadvantaged children and develops a plan. In this regard, rules on allocations, remedial teaching or disadvantaged areas status should not be strictly adhered to. Rather, there should be a much more proactive approach from the inspectorate. For example, it could agree that such strategies need to be adopted and could undertake to resource them as part of the school's plan.
The long-term development of our education system is the most important element of the Bill strategically. Listing functions and responsibilities is all very well, but many are probably de facto while others are now clear and will not have to be litigated. However, in terms of a proactive tool, this section is probably the most important in the Bill. It surprises me it only runs to a few sentences whereas voluminous thinking and work by the parliamentary draftsman has gone into other sections.
The Oireachtas has a role in this also. It is not just a matter for the partners in education. We are paying the piper and we have a right to know that a meaningful effort is made in the effective use of planning and in reporting on deployment. Given the importance of this area, I ask the Minister to be more clear on his thinking. More is needed than merely saying this is a beginning and that consultation with the partners will follow. This is an important area for the Oireachtas also.
I agree, but we do not want to be overly prescriptive in legislation. This raises the issue of centralisation and decentralisation. The Deputy's suggestion would entail my Department once again telling the schools how to do their business in terms of the development of school plans. I am aware of his view that broad principles should inform the development of the school plan. However, I would not object to this committee discussing the regulations when they are drawn up. It would give the Oireachtas a role in considering agreements which arise following discussions with the partners.
While I agree with the Deputy regarding the school plan being one of the most important issues in the Bill in terms of developing education — many of the partners, including teachers and parents, agreed that the school plan exercise is one of the most valuable in which they have been involved — we take a different approach to this matter. He is anxious to include provisions in legislation whereas I am concerned if I accede to his request, on Report Stage there will be complaints about the omission or inclusion of some aspects. We did not engage the Oireachtas on the detail of these provisions and it would be better to wait for the regulations process to be finalised. There is a different approach involved.
There is more than a different approach involved. There should be models of some kind which are approved by the Oireachtas. While they would not have to be highly prescriptive, they should, at a minimum, expect that policies adopted by schools regarding suspensions, expulsions, admissions and the way children with special needs are dealt with become central to the plan and that it would be decided that planning is not solely a matter of considering the academic development of the school. Perhaps the Minister could develop his thinking and revert to the committee with his view of a model school plan. That might be a step forward.
Ultimately, the question will arise as to whether schools will take up the model. How will it be developed? There should be resources behind it. The Minister should assign a fund that would be available for resourcing plans where it is accepted there are needs over and beyond the schemes run by the Department. This would give him the flexibility he does not have at present to take initiatives which respond to locally developed ideas in a more flexible manner.
The Minister will be aware that many of the schemes and much of the innovative thinking have not been driven by his Department. They are originating from partnership companies and individual initiatives. Many are run on a shoe string. This planning process can become a meaningful vehicle in the long-term if good models and resourcing are provided. The Minister's thinking should be articulated much more in the Bill. However, if he is not willing to do this it should be articulated here sooner rather than later. His hand would be strengthened by an endorsement from the Oireachtas before he engages in consultation. This would give us a fair idea of what we would like to see done in this area.
We will have to agree to disagree on this. I am anxious to proceed on the lines of meeting the partners when the Bill is passed, agreeing best models with the benefit of everybody's experience and expertise and then developing the regulations. The schools would then be obliged under the Act to implement the regulations pertaining to the drawing up of school plans. I would then have no problem meeting this committee. It is my intention to move quickly to put these regulations in place when the Bill is passed.
I move amendment No. 229:
In page 20, between lines 3 and 4, to insert the following subsection:
"(4) The school plan shall set out the objectives of the board in relation to the promotion of equality of access and opportunity and the steps to be taken in order to achieve those objectives.".
This relates to inalienable principles as distinct from procedure or administrative matters. It should be included.
We will come back to the matter on Report Stage.
As agreed at yesterday's meeting, the committee will continue its consideration of the Bill at 9.30 a.m. tomorrow.