Thursday, 29 October 1942
Dáil Éireann Debate
Minister for Education (Mr. Derrig): I should perhaps have mentioned last night in giving the reasons for the introduction of this Bill that one of our objects is to speed up action against defaulting parents, and therefore some of the points to which Deputies called attention have had to be introduced. I think, however, that these can be more appropriately dealt with on the Committee Stage. For example, there is a question as to the absences of members of school attendance committees. I regret to say that the attendances of members of these committees in the Dublin County Borough area are not as good as they should be. While some members attend very regularly others do not, and there have been cases where the period of membership of certain members has been characterised by complete absence from meetings. However, my only object is to endeavour to secure that the attendance will be as good as possible. If the House feels that three months is not a sufficiently long period to cover cases of illness, the matter can be dealt with. Provision, of course, is made in Section 10 of the Bill by which school managers or patrons of schools who may find it difficult to attend will be permitted to appoint deputies, and I am hopeful that under this arrangement  we shall be able to get active deputies who will be able to attend. Very often parish priests are not in a position, owing to the numerous calls upon them, to attend as regularly as they would wish.
The question was also raised in connection with employment whether an endeavour would be made to deal with the employment of children by their parents. That matter has been examined and it would be extremely difficult, I think, to deal with it. I have not been able to suggest any way in which the work of children for their parents could be brought in as a type of employment which we ought to prevent, if it interfered with school attendance. Of course there are other statutory provisions beyond those now contemplated dealing with the control of juvenile employment. Under the Conditions of Employment Act and the Shops (Conditions of Employment) Act the employment of children under 14 years of age in industrial work or in shops is prevented. It is really not my function to deal with the control of employment directly; that is more a matter for the Department of Industry and Commerce. We have had some complaints, however, and the proposals in the Bill are merely put before the House as an endeavour to meet the situation. If they can be improved in Committee, well and good. There are also, perhaps I should add, certain by-laws in the Cities of Dublin, Cork and Limerick, governing street trading and the employment of young people in certain trades. The corporations concerned, of course, can amend these by-laws from time to time. So it is not entirely a matter for the Minister for Education.
It was suggested that the provisions regarding vagrants will be difficult to carry into effect. However, I have been asked by high authorities to have this matter dealt with. Quite a long time ago representations were made to me, and the provisions here, again, are largely experimental, but we must start off by having a register of these children and seeing how the situation will work out. If such people are not able to provide for the education of  their children by giving them to others as guardians, then I presume that action will have to be taken to ensure that the minimum education, which the Constitution lays down as being necessary and which it is emphasised that the State must provide for children from the moral, intellectual and social aspects, will have to be provided for them in some way.
Emphasis has been laid upon the social conditions which deter children from going to school. I mentioned last night that the Government has established various social services to endeavour to ameliorate the situation of poor parents, and I do not think that it is possible for the State to do everything in these matters. The parents have a certain responsibility, and it should be a fundamental responsibility that they should see that their children are given an education. After all, as I said last night, it is the most valuable thing which can be given to the children, even though there may be some small charges in connection with the provision of education, and I think that most schools and teachers try to meet the cases of very poor or destitute children. In fact, when I hear Deputies talking of the provisions of school meals, light, heating, and so on, I would remind them that managers and teachers, as has been admitted in the debate, often provide out of their own pockets for these amenities. As I have often stated, the parish is expected to make its contribution towards the upkeep of the school. Then, as far as the provision of meals is concerned, you have the school meals scheme operating in a number of urban areas, and, I think, in all the borough areas. I know, myself, of a great many cases of schools where the managers provide meals for the children from their own resources—often to the extent of 300 or 400 meals a day—and, in the same way, clothing is provided in necessitous cases.
Mr. Derrig: However, I suppose we cannot all be satisfied in these matters. I think, as Deputy Morrissey said, Deputy Dillon overstated the case when he suggested that we were interfering, in some way, unnecessarily and unduly, with the parents' rights. After all, the principle of compulsory school attendance was recognised by the Legislature so far back as 1892 and, in 1926, the Irish Parliament introduced another Act along similar lines and, after 16 years' experience of that Act, I think it is not too much to hold that it should come up, in the ordinary way, for re-examination and that, if possible, the legislation should be improved. Certainly, the numbers that I read out for the House last night would indicate that, making all allowances for reasonable causes of absence, there would seem to be an unduly high proportion of children absent from our schools every day. I hope that the result of this Bill, if it is carried into law, will be to remedy that situation very greatly. As I have said, if particular points can be improved, I shall be very pleased to have the assistance and co-operation of the House, which the debate last night showed will be forthcoming.
Deputy Mulcahy raised the question of large classes. I explained in the House on a previous occasion that infants come into the large city schools in large numbers from the month of April up to the end of September, and even later. Even still, young children are coming in for the first time. Infants are supposed to come in at the beginning of the school year, the 1st July, and were it not that such a regulation would cause hardship on parents —and no doubt they would resist and object to it very strongly—for the smoother organisation of the schools and more efficiency in education, I think the Department would really be justified in urging parents to send their children, if not on the 1st July, then within a reasonable time after that. The children come in in large numbers, and then, during the winter period,  they do not attend regularly. The attendance becomes most irregular and, side by side with that, the children in the senior classes who have passed the age of 14, are being withdrawn from school. Some of them may be going into employment or withdrawn entirely, and others may be going on to secondary schools or vocational schools. In any case, there is a falling off in the attendances in the senior classes during the year, making itself apparent during the autumn period, on to Christmas It is extremely difficult for head masters or head mistresses to organise their classes properly, because they have these fluctuating numbers to deal with. Moreover, our staffing arrangements are based on giving a teacher for every 40 to 45 pupils. That is the arrangement for staffing, and, as I told Deputy Mulcahy on the Education Estimate, I see no prospect of improving the staffing arrangements in present circumstances.
Mr. Derrig: I do not allow for any percentage. When, in a particular school there is a number of pupils, ranging from 40 to 45, for whom there is not a teacher, a teacher will be provided, and teachers have been provided already in some of the cases to which the Deputy has called attention.
Mr. Derrig: The figure that is laid down in the circular dealing with the organisation of classes is 55 on the rolls. The inspectors do not consider that a figure of 55 or below 55 is unduly high, having regard to the average percentage of attendance.
Mr. Derrig: If the numbers on rolls went up to 60, and the percentage of attendances went up accordingly, the class might be abnormally large. The number that the Deputy gave yesterday —that is, 53—as the average number on rolls for these large classes, would not be considered abnormal by the inspectors, having regard to the attendance. It would furnish an attendance of about 40 to 45.
Mr. Derrig: The difficulty that headmasters have, as I have said, is, under the existing staff arrangements, to divide the numbers in their schools into such homogeneous and equal groups as will enable each teacher to have roughly the same number of children under control. In the cases that the Deputy asked me about, though there were some unduly large classes, there were also other classes, the majority, I think, which were well beneath the figures I have mentioned of 55 on rolls or 40 to 45 average attendance.
Therefore, it is really largely a question of organisation, if the rooms are suitable, to try to bring about such a grouping as will make things more equal. More attention is given to the upper classes in these large schools because, as I have said, the position is fluctuating with regard to infants and even if an extra teacher is appointed it may be the case—and it does happen —that the attendance will not be maintained and there will not be the numbers requisite for the maintenance of that teacher in the school. It would be very difficult to have a system of appointing temporary teachers.
I can assure the Deputy that the whole matter is under constant examination by the inspectors and I am satisfied that there is only a small number of cases in which the classes are unduly large. I am hopeful that through the arrangements that are being made in consultation with the inspectors, this difficulty will be eliminated for the future.
General Mulcahy: Does the Minister realise that on the figures he gives us now, whereas the normal attendance in the City of Dublin is 86.7, representing a non-attendance of 13.3 per cent., he has indicated to us that when sanctioning staffing arrangements he allows for an absence of more than 20 per cent. of the children?
Dr. Hannigan: Will the Minister be prepared to vary the mid-day interval so as to begin at 12 o'clock in the case of a number of schools instead of 12.30, in order to enable the children attending these schools to avail themselves of the facilities offered by the Catholic Social Conference and the Goodwill Kitchens, who are prepared to supply 16,000 school meals daily and a sit-down meal to 1,000 children? In order to carry out that plan it will be necessary to have the children allowed off at 12 instead of 12.30 in a small number of schools. As the scheme is in process of preparation, and as it will be necessary to have that information, will the Minister be good enough to say now whether he is prepared to accord his sanction?
Mr. Derrig: I have had no communication from the school managers on this matter. Generally, when matters dealing with schools are in question, school managers have no difficulty whatever in communicating with the Department. When the managers do communicate with me, I shall endeavour to have the matter examined. I have not sufficient information now available to answer the question the Deputy has put me, but I would like to congratulate him on the fact that he has found that there are possibly other ways of dealing with this problem than by asking parents and children to go on strike if certain demands are not met in connection with the campaign that is going on for community meals or community kitchens.
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