Private Members' Business. - Establishment of Regional Education Boards.

Thursday, 9 May 1996

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 465 No. 2

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Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  I move:

That Dáil Éireann rejects the proposal of the Minister for Education to establish ten regional boards of education as outlined in the White Paper on Education and calls on the Minister for Education to:

— recognise generously the very positive role played by vocational education committees in the evolution and development of Irish education;

— give a commitment to the House to retain and develop a modernised vocational education committee system; and

— establish fora of education on a county by county basis to develop a co-ordinated and co-operative approach to education provision in each county.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Coughlan.

Acting Chairman:  Is that agreed? Agreed.

[380]Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  This motion is designed to ensure an adequate debate takes place on a fundamental issue relating to the development of Irish education. We wish to ensure that the various arguments made by different interests might find articulation in this legislative assembly. It is important that such a debate takes place prior to the publication of legislation on the issue and that all Members of the House have an opportunity to make a contribution. The debate on intermediate education structures is not new. Proposals were tabled during a previous Fine Gael and Labour Party coalition Government in the early 1980s. There has been an ongoing drive in the Department of Education for the establishment of intermediate education structures and in chapter 14 of the White Paper on Education the Minister outlines in detail her policy approach to this issue.

The White Paper states that the Government has decided that legislation will be presented to the Oireachtas providing for the establishment of education boards which will also set out their functions and composition. The White Paper refers to a phased transfer of functions from the regional education boards and indicates that after a period of five years there would be an independent evaluation of the boards' effectiveness. The White Paper also states that the Government has decided there will be legislative reform and rationalisation of the vocational education committees system. This will mean the abolition of a number of vocational education committees and many await with trepidation the outcome of the deliberations of the rationalisation commission established by the Minister.

The White Paper states that the new regional boards will have substantial co-ordination and support service functions and will be the co-ordinating bodies for adult and continuing education, vocational education and training and outdoor education centres in their regions. It also states that the boards will channel Exchequer funding to the [381] vocational education committees or to other providers of these services and that the board will also have a co-ordinating role in relation to publicly funded youth and sport activities. All these activities are administered and operated to a high standard at present by the vocational education committees.

The White Paper states that there will be ten education boards and outlines the geographical remit of each board. Dublin city will be one region; the Dublin County board will include Fingal, South Dublin and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown council areas; the mid-east board will cover counties Kildare and Wicklow; the midlands board will cover counties Offaly, Longford and Westmeath; the mid-west board will cover counties Clare, Limerick and Tipperary North Riding; the north-east board will cover counties Cavan, Louth and Meath; the north-west board will cover counties Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim; the south-east board will cover counties Carlow, Kilkenny, Waterford, Wexford and Tipperary South Riding; the southwest board will cover counties Cork and Kerry; and the board for the west will cover counties Galway, Mayo and Roscommon.

The White Paper outlines the composition of the regional education boards and indicates a reduction in the number of public representatives who will be entitled to a position on the boards. The Minister does not specify the number of elected representatives who will be entitled to become members of a regional board. However, a considerable reduction in the numbers is indicated. The Minister will be entitled to nominate members to the regional education boards which signals significant Government involvement and influence over the new boards.

The White Paper makes clear that the powers and legislative remit of the boards will significantly reduce the powers and authority of the vocational education committees which will remain following the work of the rationalisation commission. The Minister intends that the vocational education committees [382] will be required in future to submit all their plans, programmes and budgets to the relevant education board for consideration and incorporation, with or without modification of the plans, programmes and budgets of the boards themselves. In addition, the vocational education committees will function as providers of education within the framework provided nationally by the Minister for Education and elaborated regionally by each board. Exchequer funding in support of providers, including the vocational education committees, other schools, community and voluntary organisations will be channelled through the education boards.

The White Paper makes it clear that the role of vocational education committees is to be redefined vis-á-vis the education boards and other providers. The amending legislation for the vocational education committees which the Minister intends to introduce will provide for the retention of vocational education committees as statutory committees with specific responsibilities but which, nonetheless, will be clearly under the jurisdiction of regional education boards. One has to question the Minister's policy in terms of having two competing intermediate structures. The vocational education committees will not survive as they have to date under the new arrangements and their powers, remit and resources will be seriously curtailed as a result of the new policy outlined in the White Paper. There should be one intermediate tier between the Department of Education and the school boards of management. The proposals as outlined by the Minister are a recipe for bureaucratic chaos.

The Minister has indicated from time to time that the establishment of the boards, after the passing of the relevant legislation, will be on a phased basis. However, she has not been very specific about the time scale involved or the phased implementation of the plan which is envisaged. She has refused on a number of occasions to outline the cost of establishing the regional education boards. I have tabled a number [383] of parliamentary questions on the matter and the Minister has refused to provide the necessary information.

Cost is a key issue in this debate. On almost a daily basis I receive complaints and expressions of concern from many in the education sector about the lack of resources available for the provision of important education programmes. There are huge demands for more visiting teachers for children with special disabilities, more resource teachers and remedial teachers, a reformed and more effective school transport system, the provision of capital funding for the refurbishment of old school buildings, the acquisition of new sites and the development of new school buildings.

The education budget is very significant and amounts to approximately £2.2 billion at present. However, huge demands are still made on resources. In the foreword to the White Paper the Minister made it clear that the implementation of the proposals in that document will be subject to the Maastricht criteria and the annual budgeting restrictions imposed by the Minister for Finance.

On three occasions in this House, the Minister refused to provide details of the cost framework undertaken by the Department of Finance on the proposals contained in the White Paper on Education. It is extremely important that Members are given access to these figures to gain an idea of the cost of the proposals in the White Paper. Needs could then be prioritised and an implementation strategy could be developed over a specific timeframe. People involved in the area of education would like to be aware of the mountain which must be climbed in terms of the cost implications of the proposals in the White Paper. It is regrettable that the Minister has not shown greater transparency by publishing the cost framework that was undertaken by the Department of Finance prior to the publication of the White Paper.

I do not believe it is possible to implement the reforms and proposals [384] contained in the White Paper on an ad hoc, annual basis. A five year implementation is required and I am surprised the Minister has not published such a plan or costed proposals and prioritised them accordingly. For this reason I have expressed severe reservations about the Minister's proposals to drive forward with the establishment of ten regional education boards in advance of many other worthy proposals on the curricular and teacher supply area. We need to know the costings involved before a decision is taken.

Fianna Fáil believes that available resources should be directed towards children, teachers and schools in general. There is a genuine fear that the cost involved in the establishment of ten regional education boards could be very significant. Many experienced politicians have pointed to the development of the health boards for example, and the huge costs which followed their establishment and development. A similar situation could evolve after the establishment of regional education boards. It is my party's view that all resources must be directed to areas of greatest need.

I invite politicians to meet parents involved in campaigning for better educational facilities for children with special needs, for example. Despite the publication of its report a number of years ago, many of the special education review body's proposals have not been implemented. I acknowledge that there have been some improvements but much needs to be done. The parents of children with special needs are angry, frustrated and disillusioned with the lack of political commitment shown by the Government to their plight.

I have spoken to many people involved in special schools who complained bitterly about the lack of speech therapists, adequate resources, proper facilities, etc. If one speaks to those involved in the area of early school leaving, one again hears a story of neglect, under-provision and a deteriorating situation. High Court judges complain on an almost daily basis that there is no [385] proper preventative educational institution to which young offenders involved in crime might be sent. Such an institution does not exist because the Government has not provided the necessary resources to provide additional places for young male and female juvenile offenders.

In the cutbacks announced in June 1995, the Minister removed 1,000 places from the VTOS scheme for the long-term unemployed. She also refused to proceed with the provision of ten additional psychological posts and the appointment of 21 visiting teachers for the travelling community. Where do the Minister's priorities lie and what will be the cost of setting up the new regional education boards?

If I put the issues I just outlined on one side of the equation and the establishment of new administrative structures on the other, where should the money go and where should the priorities lie? Surely any available resources should be allocated to those in greatest need rather than allocated and directed to structural changes and new bodies. That is the view of the Fianna Fáil Party. Furthermore, the geographical remit of the new regional education boards is clearly too large. There is no county identity or loyalty in the geographical configuration of the new boards. In a report entitled Restructuring Education in Ireland by Alice Brown and John Fairley, it is very cogently argued that there is a strong case for considering the present county/city boundaries as the natural boundaries for any new intermediate structures. The county and city are clearly the basis of community and self-identity. The authors of that report suggest it is also the best basis for securing openness, accountability, parental involvement and community partnership and their views should be given very careful consideration. The White Paper makes very strong play on the need for parental involvement and a sense of partnership in educational provision.

Following their particular research and experience in Scotland, it is the [386] view of Brown and Fairley that, if we really want to see parental involvement and participation in education and community partnership and participation, the best geographical unit for any intermediate education structure should be the county or the city. They are of the view that from the perspective of achieving the required degree of co-operation between education, industry and economic interests, such a unit gives the best possible opportunity for doing so. Their report came to the conclusion that a network of county-city local education committees should be established instead of a regional tier. I will deal with that proposal later in my contribution.

The authors of the report were particularly worried about the establishment of regional education boards and feared that the absorption of the vocational education committees into larger bodies could lead to loss of cohesion and a diminution in the importance of vocational education. They are also worried that the unique focus on vocational education provided by the vocational education committees would be lost precisely at the time when it could become a competitive advantage for the country. In their view, vocational education is set to become more, rather than less, important. They argue that regional education committees would be likely to be too large and remote from communities to be fully legitimate, particularly given the very high degree of identification with counties and cities. They argue strongly that a regional tier would be less likely to forge strong links between education and community development and would make it more difficult to involve parents, employers and the community in decision making. This is a key point.

If the proposals in the White Paper are to be implemented in terms of partnership, community and parental participation, the regional model is clearly not the way forward. It will offer only a token opportunity for parents and the community to become involved because the geographical remit involved is too large and extensive and simply would [387] not allow for local participation or involvement. This represents a very serious drawback in the Minister's proposals and essentially undermines the objectives of the White Paper in terms of parental and community involvement in educational development. Furthermore, these geographical regions would not attract any loyalties from the communities they propose to serve.

The issue of public representation in the new regional boards must also be addressed. There has been much criticism and cynical analysis of the role of the public representative on vocational Education Committees in the past. As a chairman of the City of Cork Vocational Education Committee, I consider myself well placed to make a valid judgment on the contribution of public representatives to that body and to vocational education committees in general. The principle that underlines the necessity for public representation on bodies such as the vocational education committees and regional education boards is one of democratic accountability. Ultimate democratic accountability is to the people. The will on the people must always be paramount in any democracy. Any democratic institutions established in this State should always pass the test of democratic accountability in a very real and immediate sense. Whatever the ills of the present system — some undoubtedly exist — one cannot avoid the fact that the most effective way to ensure democratic accountability to the people is to ensure adequate public representation on these bodies.

Those directly elected through local authorities have a mandate from the people and must ultimately answer to them in the form of regular local and general elections. That is the ultimate test and it is wrong to establish regional boards or any new institutions without adequate democratic representation. I make no apology for stating, or making it a cornerstone of my own personal philosophy, that public representatives deserve to be on vocational education committees and on any new bodies [388] established in education or any other sphere of Government activity. Public representatives are elected by the people, they have a mandate to act on behalf of the people and are answerable to them. Directors, chief executive officers or full-time officials are not accountable to the people in that fundamental sense and any new arrangements that give considerable powers to directors of regional boards of education, who would be directly answerable to the Department, the Minister and the Dáil through a number of chains of communication, are not an adequate alternative to our system of democratic accountability in a number of institutions, particularly vocational education committees.

In addition, public representatives have played a noble role in vocational education committees. Many councillors have given years of service to vocational education committees and have made noble contributions in the areas of adult education, further education, youth work, traveller education etc. This experience and contribution should be generously recognised and not undermined.

There is not a need for two sets of competing intermediate structures in the education system. It is politically dishonest of the Minister to suggest that one can establish regional educational boards while retaining some vocational education committees. It is clear from the White Paper and the establishment of the rationalisation committee on vocational education committees that the Minister intends to considerably reduce the number of vocational education committees. It is dishonest to suggest that the remaining vocational education committees can survive in any effective way side by side with the new regional education boards as there would be considerable duplication and overlapping and unnecessary rivalry and competition would develop. This is a recipe for bureaucratic disaster and does not have my support.

On the role played by vocational education committees in the development [389] of education since their establishment in the 1930s, the 38 vocational education committees have more than 60 years expertise and experience in delivering technical instruction and vocational education generally and their work and influence has developed and changed over the years. They provide a wide range of education and have been responsible for much of the innovation in the system. They have proven to be adaptable, capable of moving with the times and of responding in a modern way to the market place. We must remember that it was the vocational education committees who were involved in the establishment of the national network of regional colleges and colleges of technology. This is an achievement which cannot be underestimated. The vocational education committees have proven to be one of the most effective mechanisms for broadening access to third level education. Vocational education committees oversaw the establishment of many regional technical collegess and administered them up until recently. The House should commend the vocational education committees on this achievement which has not been generously recognised by the Minister.

The vocational education committees have also interacted very successfully with FÁS in the development of apprenticeship programmes and apprenticeship education generally. They pioneered the world of adult education for many years before it became fashionable to do so. They are involved in many youth organisations and in the provision of youth and sport facilities. The range of activities vocational education committees provide is impressive. For example, music would not have been advanced to the same extent in many rural areas without the progressive leadership role adopted by vocational education committees and teachers in developing county music schemes.

Public perception may not always have matched reality in terms of the vocational education committee's contribution to education. Some vocational [390] education committees have not performed brilliantly at all times; unfortunately mistakes have been made by some vocational education committees at certain times but this does not justify an outright attack on the system or the deliberate attempts to undermine the contribution they have made to education. The Minister and her Department are responsible for the negative attitudes to the vocational education committee system in the past two to three years. An attempt has been made to soften up public opinion and to prepare the ground for the abolition of vocational education committees. This has taken the form of selective leaks about certain vocational education committees and has resulted in a lack of any clear Government recognition of the role and contribution of vocational education committees. Morale among the members of many vocational education committees is low because it is perceived that the Government and the Minister have no time for them. In their analysis of vocational education committee structures Brown and Fairley summarised their strengths as embracing support and co-ordination, partnership and community, innovation and responsiveness. We should cherish these attributes dearly and should not move easily to undermine them or remove them from the education system.

The vocational education committees have been very strong in response to the needs of the less well off and disadvantaged in the community. This was an important factor in the establishment of the vocational education committees in the 1930s and it continues to be an important factor. The modern manifestation of vocational education committees assistance to the disadvantaged in the community can be found in the extensive youth education service and the development and support given to the Youthreach programme for early school-leavers which has proven to be very successful despite limited resources and a lack of co-ordinated and concerted Government policy on early school leaving.

[391] The chronic problem of long-term unemployment has been well addressed by the vocational education committees. A lack of skills and educational achievement has condemned many people to a life on the dole queue and education is the key to opening the door to jobs and subsequent prosperity for them. In this context, the VTOS was well managed by the vocational education committees. This scheme has proven to be an outstanding success since its introduction in 1989 by Deputies Woods and O'Rourke. We have seen at first hand the tremendous success of the scheme in helping people who were long-term unemployed. This indicates the extent to which the teachers and administrative staff of vocational education committees were capable of adapting and responding to changing needs and attitudes, to deal with adult learners. Many of these teachers taught mainstream subjects in the junior and senior certificate cycles and adapted quickly to administer VTOS and deal with the further education sector. I will not refer in detail to the further education sector but I am on record as describing it as the most innovative and effective development in education in recent years. We should thank the vocational education committees for their outstanding contribution to the development of this sector. The vocational education committees have responded to the demands of the market place and provided education in a broad and diverse range of subjects. The teaching and administrative staff of the vocational education committees deserve praise for their tremendous contribution in this area.

Fianna Fáil accepts the need for the devolution of authority from the top downwards. We favour the devolution of the greatest degree of power and authority from the Department. In this context, the boards of management of schools should have a considerable degree of authority and responsibility for the operation of schools on a daily and weekly basis. We have carried out [392] research and met the various sectors in the education system and we have been saddened somewhat by the degree of mistrust between them. The educational system has evolved over many years and different sectors have grown and developed in accordance with their ethos, history and tradition. There is a need to build consensus from the bottom up before we impose structures from the top down. For example, the voluntary secondary sector view the emerging regional education boards with great distrust. They are extremely wary of them and believe they will lessen and undermine the status of the voluntary secondary school. Likewise, the vocational education committees and other sectors feel threatened by the proposed regional boards and believe they will lead to the ultimate demise of the vocational educational system.

Fianna Fáil accepts the need for greater co-ordination, co-operation, joint teamwork and effort between the providers of educational services within a given area. The first step towards such co-ordination and co-operation is the development of a genuine consensus between the various partners and providers in education, the vocational, primary, voluntary and secondary sectors, parents etc. As an initial first step in developing co-ordination and co-operation between the various providers county based fora of education should be established so that each county would have its own education forum. These fora would not initially be set up on a statutory basis and could be serviced by a secretariate drawn from either the vocational education committee sector, the voluntary secondary system or, by agreement, from both. This would be a matter for the providers who would attend the forum which would comprise all providers of educational services in a given county or city area. It would meet regularly throughout the year and would endeavour to co-ordinate and plan ahead in terms of the provision of basic services. For example, it could co-ordinate activities to deal with the difficulties experienced by early [393] school-leavers, the development of proper psychological services etc.

There are many areas where co-ordination and co-operation can be developed further between the various providers of education. We should start by establishing a forum of education in each county or city. We recently met representatives from County Clare where such a forum has been in place for some time. I have read a number of their reports and the meetings were attended by a broad representative grouping from all the sectors. Considerable consensus emerged in regard to a number of issues as did the view that the county forum concept could play a useful role in the co-ordination of courses and provision of services. They also agreed that such a body should encompass the primary and second level systems.

We should establish a forum in every county. These fora could evolve and develop into statutory education authorities on a county by county basis based on the experiences garnered through the fora. Consensus must be built from the bottom up, not imposed from the top down. Such a proposal has the best chance of success in the future and offers the best model for the development of an intermediate tier. Fianna Fáil is prepared to give its support for the development of such a system.

I am at all times concerned about the cost implications of any intermediate tier and express the same reservation in relation to the development of county based education authorities. I believe in a step-by-step approach and development of consensus initially. With consensus established, much can be achieved.

I welcome this opportunity to debate the Minister's proposals to establish new regional education boards. It is important that the issue be debated. I have been concerned for some time that the Minister has neglected to keep Dáil Éireann informed of developments in the education world, particularly in the context of the reforms announced in the [394] White Paper on Education. There have been too many private seminars and briefings, leaks to newspapers about legislative proposals and so forth. All legislation ultimately must come before the Oireachtas. The Minister should have due regard and respect for the legislative role of Deputies and Senators who will be asked to make a contribution and asked to vote for the legislation which will give effect to the establishment of ten regional education boards. In that context Fianna Fáil will be opposing the legislation and on its return to office will abolish any regional education boards established.

It is not acceptable that consultation should take place with various partners and other groupings and not with Members of the Dáil or Seanad. There has been only one debate on the White Paper since its publication. There has been no debate at the Select Committee on Social Affairs on this proposal or any other proposed legislation dealing with education issues. The Oireachtas has not been involved in any meaningful way in the education legislative process. Many Bills have been promised, yet there has been little consultation with Members. That is regrettable and the reason I was anxious to ensure the issue was debated in the House. I commend the motion to the House.

Miss Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  There comes a time in the tenure of office of every Minister when he or she begins to contemplate on the harsh realities of political life and the inevitable departure from office. If one's party's support is running at 4 per cent in crucial by-elections, it tends to focus the mind on what one has accomplished and left to posterity, one's mark of distinction, the questions of by what measure have the lives of the electorate improved because of one's public service, what legacy one has bestowed to the nation and what legislation has made a difference.

To this end the White Paper has been scoured from one action packed page to another, read inside out and upside down, pushed at, nudged at, cajoled, [395] wined and dined and brought from convention to forum and back to Marlborough Street, all to secure just one shred of an innovative idea, the minutiae of something new that the parliamentary draftsman can encapsulate in a Bill to give the Minister her swansong, her bequest to the nation. The wheel has stopped at regional education boards.

Not content with the sprawling mass of bureaucracy that is the Department of Education or an attempt to rationalise and reorganise, the Minister has decided to do what any decent Labour Minister would do, add another layer of bureaucracy. She should go ahead and create more paper and red tape, working parties and committees. There will be a core board the members of which will be appointed to an education board, subject I am sure to ministerial approval. This board, in turn, may then establish committees and the specialist groups to advise.

Where will it all end? When will we allow teachers to teach and bother about education properly? We should forget about the time sheet, clocking in and clocking out and the integrity of the school year. The Minister cannot even guarantee the integrity of the national examinations system. Above all else this is sacrosanct, but it has now been contaminated.

Confidence in the education sector is at an all-time low, not just among teachers, parents and administrators but among pupils who are asking what it is all about. It is about teachers being allowed to teach and pupils who are willing to learn, with each being provided with the funding, resources, structures and means to do so. What we do not need is yet another level of bureaucracy. What we need is real and tangible education assistance. There is not a single sound reason for the establishment of regional education boards. The entire education sector is crying out for more funding and assistance.

The annual Estimates at the end of last year included a figure of £350,000 for the initial costs of setting up regional [396] education boards for part of this year. By budget day this sum had been dropped from the revised Estimates. The question is how much it will cost to set up regional education boards in a full year. In the White Paper the matter was side-stepped. It states that the cost of the boards will represent a marginal additional cost rather than an entirely new area of expenditure. There is no such thing.

On the basis of the legislation promised before the summer recess and that regional education boards cannot be established before 1 October, annualised expenditure could not be less than £1.4 million in initial staffing and pre-programme costs. If we bill-in full staffing, premises and normal general running costs, the additional allocation for the ten regional education boards could not be less than £2.5 million for each board, giving a total of £25 million. It costs £40 million per year to run the education boards in Northern Ireland.

What else could one do with this spare £25 million? Who really wants regional education boards? Every pound spent on a regional education board means one pound less for the children of Ireland. I am sure the people of Ballybrack and Sallynoggin are not writing to the Minister or standing outside her clinics asking when a regional education board will be established. If she asks the parents of the children whom she represents, they will give her a different answer.

I cannot say what the people of Ballybrack and Sallynoggin want, but I do know what the people of Donegal South-West want. They certainly do not want a regional education board. Six or seven national schools have been awaiting the provision of extensions for the past two to three years. We are looking for additional remedial teachers, psychological services, teacher centres, proper disadvantaged teaching posts and access to services that will make a difference in meeting the education needs of our children. If I had £25 million to spare, I would not throw it at [397] things which will not make any difference to children.

The 38 vocational education committees have diligently served the community for the past 65 years. They have been dynamic and innovative. Not alone have they committed themselves to their core mainline second-level school provision, they have also been responsive to community needs through the provision of outdoor education centres, adult education and training centres, teacher centres, youthreach programmes, VTOS programmes as well as training programmes for travellers and prisoners. They have co-operated and collaborated with all other agencies and community groups throughout the country and participated in joint ventures which have facilitated and supported local education and economic development. They are not just committees for vocational schools but for the vocational education sector.

When the Minister spoke at the IVEA conference in Newcastle, County Down she delivered her speech as if it were a funeral statement. She spelled out in no uncertain terms what the real role of vocational education committees will be and stated that they will be trustees guaranteeing the ethos of schools. If the Minister does not have the backbone to make the decision to abolish the vocational education committees, she should not insult the people committed to the provision of vocational education.

The president of the IVEA, a former Fine Gael Deputy, had this to say:

The IVEA are not interested in the retention of an emaciated vocational sector. It would be more honest and sensible to abolish all 38 vocational education committees entirely.

This is not a partisan or a party political matter. As the Minister would know if she listened to the public representatives from the Government parties, this is bureaucracy versus democracy. It is a waste of money. If the Minister is so determined, stubborn and pig-headed as to persist with this foolish plan to introduce REBs, immediately on our return [398] to Government, as our spokesperson said, we will abolish REBs and apply the resources where they are really needed.

Minister for Education (Ms Bhreathnach): Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “That” and substitute the following:

“Dáil Éireann welcomes the establishment of education boards on the basis set out in the Government's White Paper on Education, Charting Our Education Future, and

— recognises generously the very positive role played by vocational education committees in the evolution and development of Irish education;

— supports the retention and development of a modernised vocational education committee system, within the new education boards structure, on the basis set out in the White Paper; and

— supports the principle of community partnership which will underpin the composition and operation of boards of management in every school and the education boards in every region.”

In Ireland, we have always had an enormous respect for education. We have shown this by the intense debate which led up to the publication of the White Paper. We show it by an annual investment in education of over £2 billion and we show this regard for education by the continuing debate as we move to implement the White Paper policies. This huge interest and intense debate is a sign of a healthy society. This interest means that we realise the enormous importance of education in determining our future. It means we realise that education must change as times change and that we are all engaged in planning for the education system of the future.

The legislation which will establish [399] the education boards is a central part of that plan. Its drafting is well advanced. It is most important legislation. I am especially pleased today to have this opportunity to bring to the House my vision of the education boards of the future and to invite Members to participate in these far-reaching plans for the future.

I want to address three issues: why is it essential that we decentralise Irish education; why establish education boards and what will they do; what is the future of the vocational education committees? First let us look at the background which has produced the education system of today.

The education system has served the country exceedingly well over the decades. Our people are now one of the best educated in the world. Standards continue to rise each year. A recent international report concluded that Ireland was second only to Singapore in the contribution made by education to the competitiveness of its economy. Given this record of success, why do we need to change? That answer is that we cannot stand still. We must build on our success. We must adapt and manage change. It is essential to set out the basis for our confidence and the new arrangements are both timely and important.

The present system for central administration of schools, particularly with regard to teacher allocation and provision of school buildings, originates from the time when national schools were first established in Ireland in the nineteenth century. The Department of Education was established in 1924 and the Minister for Education assumed responsibility for all national, secondary and technical education. A centralised system of administration was appropriate at that time, given the need to ensure that the education system was developed on a consistent basis. At that time, it was essential to oversee the development of these crucial sectors at national level. The Department of Education played a key central role in this development.

[400] The Vocational Education Committee Act, 1930, set up the vocational education committee structure to administer continuing and technical education in the vocational education committee areas. This development recognised that important aspects of the education system could most effectively be delivered by bodies that were in touch with the needs of the local region. The vocational education committee system did not affect centralised departmental control of the vast majority of our 4,000 primary and second level schools, control of pre-schools and PLCs, adult education and traveller education, school attendance and school supports.

We have had massive expansion in education since the 1960s. Free second level education transformed the educational landscape. There has been a huge increase in the day-to-day involvement of the Department with this rapidly expanding system, but there has been no change in structure to manage this expansion.

What has been the result of this? The Department of Education is overwhelmed with the day-to-day business of the education system, a system in which more than one million students and teachers are involved every day. The Department, through sheer pressure of business, is seen as bureaucratic, unresponsive and slow. Communities develop a dependency culture while waiting for a central Department to make decisions. Partnership in planning for education is stifled. Competition, rather than co-operation between different schools, can result. That is why now, more than ever, we need decentralised structures in education.

Given the maturity of our educational system in the 1990s, there is now the need to look afresh at the administrative arrangements. A number of key challenges facing our education system have been identified. First, the existing centralised structures, based as they are on an administrative model from the previous century, are no longer appropriate in the context of a modern and rapidly evolving educational system. The scale [401] of the system has increased greatly over the years. Education has increased in complexity and subtlety across a number of areas, for example, in providing for the development needs of individuals of all ages, in nurturing social cohesion based on pluralism and diversity and in addressing the broad skill needs of the economy. The traditional centralised arrangements cannot address these changing needs. We need a structure that is responsive to the needs of the regions and representative of community interests, not remote from them. We need to devolve co-ordination and administrative functions from Marlborough Street into the regions, where they belong, and we need to empower our schools to act as resources of learning for their community.

Second, we are all aware of the need for accountability in the efficient expenditure of public resources. In today's environment, education quite rightly accounts for a significant proportion of our national resources. The administrative models we currently have were designed for another age when education was a modest undertaking for the State. We need new arrangements to administer our education system in an accountable way.

Third, modern international thinking strongly supports the idea that the appropriate role of any central education authority, such as the Department of Education, should be to focus upon policy development issues. The actual administration of the system should be as near to the level of selfcontained regions as possible, co-ordinated by the central authority. The OECD in its 1991 review made this point quite strongly in the context of the Irish education system.

At a European level, regional and local involvement in administrative matters such as staffing, school building provision and developing linkages with the business environment is now very much the norm. The central role of the State is generally confined to areas such [402] as overall policy matters, curriculum supervision and quality assurance.

Empowerment and mobilisation of regional and community resources is a feature of the education systems in countries such as Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands. Even countries such as Italy, Sweden, Spain and Portugal, which share with Ireland a tradition of highly centralised control of all aspects of the education system, have made significant progress towards devolving responsibilities to the regional level. We are unique in Europe, therefore, in our level of centralisation.

Arising out of these various considerations, the development of education boards with a regional focus is a natural progression for our education system. The new arrangements will bring us squarely within the mainstream of best international practice in educational matters while being designed specifically in line with the needs and distinct traditions of our education system.

Having identified the need for devolution from the centre to the regions, the next questions are, how to implement this devolution and what structures would best serve the needs of students, communities and regions. The proposals for education boards with a regional focus, coupled with reform of the structures of school governance, are a coherent and sensible response to these questions.

The education board proposals were not arrived at in a vacuum — quite the contrary. In 1994 I published a position paper setting out my thinking on the establishment of education boards with a regional focus. The position paper was the subject of round-table discussions with all the partners in education. The final proposals, as set out in the White Paper, reflect the constructive input of the partners.

The White Paper, in setting out clearly the fruits of many years deliberation on this matter, identifies the key benefits that will attend the devolution of authority from the centre to the [403] regions. These benefits include enhancing the quality of education; facilitating an effective partnership among all those with an interest in education at national, regional and community levels; realising national objectives in education — such as equality of access and relevance to the needs of the community — in an effective way; eliciting a broad level of acceptance from those within the regional remit of the board and reflecting the diversity within the Irish school system; promoting transparency in education, particularly in regard to resource allocation; and enhancing public accountability.

In summary, the Government has good grounds for confidence that the move to regionally-focused education boards will harness the goodwill, expertise and innovation that is found within the regions and within the communities.

It has been suggested by some that the proposed education boards would be too large, too remote and too centralised. Such criticisms are completely without foundation. The White Paper stated that there would be ten education boards and set out their geographical remit. This is based upon county boundaries with the boards varying in size from five counties in the case of the South East Education Board to one local authority area in the case of Dublin city. The aim in deciding on this geographical spread is to establish regions with a substantial population but which are geographically homogeneous and not excessively extensive.

It is important to be clear on this point. The size and structure of boards must be determined in line with one criterion only — what is best for the education needs of the region. That is the overriding concern.

The important concept here is balance. I pointed out earlier that the existing centralised arrangements cannot continue, but it would be foolhardy to rush headlong to the opposite extreme, where the education system is decentralised to such an extent that we have complete fragmentation, with a [404] multiplicity of educational agencies and a lack of co-ordination at regional level.

The White Paper proposals strike a balance between introducing realistic devolution into the delivery of educational services on the one hand, and avoiding excessive fragmentation of service delivery on the other.

The regions selected will represent sensible, viable units for co-ordinating a very wide range of educational services at the regional level. The proposed ten board structure will facilitate the necessary co-ordination at the national level. In addition, the education regions, which will coincide broadly with local Government and health board areas, will facilitate co-operation and co-ordination of service delivery to the maximum extent possible.

The concern is sometimes raised that the boards might in some way be remote from local communities. Community interests would be ignored, the argument goes. Nothing could be further from the reality. The White Paper proposals, when seen in their entirety and as a coherent whole, will facilitate and encourage participation at local and community level in the education system. To understand the reason this is so, it is necessary to see the education board proposals in their proper context.

The education boards are one important element of a series of reforms set out in the White Paper. The same legislation that will provide for the establishment of the education boards will also provide for the establishment of new boards of management in all Statefunded schools at primary and second level. The legislation will support the schools in providing a high quality education service. In addition, the schools will develop a renewed focus as a community resource. Involving the community in the governance of their schools, as well as encouraging the participation of all sections of the community in local schooling, is the way to promote local community involvement in local and community education.

[405] We need only look at the composition of the education boards to see how they will express the principle of partnership: school patrons, including vocational education committees, parents, teachers, public representatives, ministerial nominees and the wider community, including minorities all will have their place on the education boards.

We will have partnership in planning with an education board in each region and partnership in providing education with a board of management in each school. It has been claimed that existing support services will be lost following the establishment of the education boards. There is no basis for this claim. If anything, the boards will be in a position to provide a range of support services that are more in line with the needs of the region. It has been suggested that the issue of funding the regional education boards has been avoided. This is not the case.

The White Paper on Education, Charting Our Education Future, makes clear that the establishment of education boards will take place on a phased basis, following the enactment of the necessary legislation.

The gradual transfer of functions to the boards will facilitate careful appraisal of the incremental costs in the context of the Education Estimates for the year in question——

Mr. Martin: Information on Micheál Martin  Zoom on Micheál Martin  What does that mean? Spell it out.

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  ——within the overall context of the budgetary parameters approved by Government.

Miss Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  What will it cost?

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  The establishment of education boards will not result in a completely new area of expenditure over and above the present expenditure levels. Instead, there will be a reallocation of funding and administrative responsibilities within the education system. In this process, resources will be [406] freed from some areas to help offset resource needs in other areas. While the resources needed to establish the education boards will naturally be subject to careful appraisal, consideration of any additional costs should take into account the significant benefits which the new arrangements will bring — benefits in terms of improved regional planning and co-ordination of all education services and the provision of support services to primary and secondary schools in the most cost-effective way.

Education boards will plan education in the region, in accordance with national policies, harnessing co-operation between schools, empowering communities to take decisions about education. They will fund education according to national criteria, openly, transparently, subject to public accountability and in a way which will command public confidence. They will provide schools with supports such as inservice training, building maintenance, curriculum advice and psychological services. They will provide an appeal machanism for complaints and will measure quality in schools through in-depth inspection in the context of the school plans.

It has been suggested that there is a plan to eliminate the vocational education committees. Some people have attempted to portray the White Paper proposals as an attempt to do away with them entirely or to deprive them of their powers and functions. This is not true.

The White Paper states that vocational education committees will be retained and will function as providers of education within the framework established nationally by the Minister for Education and elaborated on regionally by each education board. Exchequer funding and support for the vocational education committees will be channelled through the education boards.

Following the establishment of education boards, the vocational education committees will remain in place as statutory committees with substantial local authority involvement and with [407] responsibility for the second-level schools currently under their remit; ownership of their schools; employment of staff, including teachers and the appointment of boards of management to their schools. The vocational education committees will also be enabled to continue in their role as providers in the following areas, in addition to the general junior and senior-cycle programmes at second level; vocational education and training, including post leaving certificate courses; adult and continuing education; outcentres; the arts in education; and the operation of outdoor education centres.

The reservoir of experience which the vocational education committee sector has gained will ensure that it will be a key player in the new educational landscape. While the education boards will plan and support education in the regions, the vocational education committees, together with the other sectors, will be central in its delivery. Nothing could be clearer and simpler that that.

The enormous contribution made by the vocational education committee sector to our education system deserves to be recognised generously and without reservation. I am happy to warmly commend it for the tremendous work it has done and continues to do. There is no agenda to get rid of the vocational education committees. On the contrary, we plan to reform and strengthen the vocational education committee sector to ensure it is ready for the new era.

A key consideration in any proposals for the modernisation of the vocational education committee sector is the need for a vocational education committee to be sufficiently large to provide for the effective concentration of resources.

The House will be aware that the area of jurisdiction of many of the existing vocational education committees is too small to be cost effective. Needs have changed and populations have altered since the 1930 Act.

As outlined in the White Paper, a commission on school accommodation needs has been established to conduct [408] comprehensive demographic and statistical research and to advise me. The first task of the commission is to examine the existing vocational education committee structure and to report and make recommendations on its modernisation. The commission has embarked on its task with enthusiasm and openness. I would like to place on record the extensive consultative process which is taking place. An advertisement was placed in the national press on 14 March seeking submissions by 29 March 1996. The commission exercised flexibility in the closing date for the receipt of submissions. In all cases where an extension of time was sought it was granted.

Arrangements have been made to ensure that every vocational education committee is given an opportunity to make oral presentations to the commission. The vast majority of the oral hearings have now taken place. In addition, the IVEA is making a presentation both to the technical working group and to the steering group of the commission. When the commission finishes its work, every vocational education committee group will have had an opportunity to make a presentation. These consultations have taken place in a spirit of openness and transparency.

The establishment of the commission on social accommodation needs has been criticised. It has been said that the school accommodation needs of each region should be a key function of the appropriate education board. The need to examine school accommodation on a coherent basis is too important to postpone until the education boards have been established and are fully operational. I consider that the commission, with representatives of the partners in education, is the most effective mechanism for addressing this very important topic. At the end of its time, the functions of the commission will transfer to the education boards.

I reiterate that the role of the State and the Minister in education arises as part of their overall concern to achieve economic prosperity, social well-being [409] and a good quality of life within a democratically structured society.

The State must seek to create, promote and support the conditions within which education can realise its potential in society. The democratic character of society requires education to embrace the diverse traditions, beliefs and values of its people. Irish education is profoundly influenced by the long commitment of the Catholic and Protestant Churches and other religions to the provision of education. The vocational education committees have made a significant contribution to the development of the education system. Ireland has benefited from a distinguished tradition of higher education. All have served Irish students and society well.

I trust that Deputies will accept the need to change our education system. That is what the education boards will do. I firmly believe that our education system must build from the ground up. Our schools must act as a resource for our communities, to promote local involvement in local schooling. Education boards, together with vocational education committees, must act as a resource for the regions and the Department must act as a resource for the nation as a whole.

That is the vision set out in the White Paper. I call on all Deputies in the House, all who care about delivering a better education system at all levels and in all regions, to support this vision.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  I wish to share time with Deputy Cullen.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Joe Jacob  Zoom on Joe Jacob  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern  Zoom on Dermot Ahern  The Minister talks about openness and transparency but her speech today proposes the exact opposite. It is a classic example of double-speak. She complimented the vocational education committees on their tremendous role in education. If the system is working well, why fix it? She said the vocational education committees made an enormous contribution [410] to our education system but also said that the jurisdiction of many of them is too small. She implied that some people portray the White Paper as an attempt to do away entirely with vocational education committees. It is significant that she used the word “entirely” because it gives an indication of her intentions in regard to smaller vocational education committees.

The Minister stated that the regional education boards will work in partnership with the vocational education committees, but she also referred to the reallocation of funding and the freeing up of resources. As additional money will not be provided for the establishment of these boards, funding will be taken from another sector and I have no doubt the vocational education committees will suffer.

From where did the proposal to set up the boards emanate? The Minister mentioned decentralisation. The setting up of these boards is the antithesis of decentralisation. The Fianna Fáil Party has always supported the principle of decentralisation to the regions. The Minister is merely creating an extra tier of bureaucracy. The vocational education committees will be downgraded to rubber-stamping decisions made at a higher level. As a former member of a vocational education committee, I am particularly unhappy with the Minister's decision and the proposals in the White Paper. What will be the cost saving? Is there a cost implication involved? If not, why set up these boards? It will cause great upheaval and a loss of morale in many vocational education committees. When we were in Government we successfully staved off the proposal to abolish some of the smaller vocational education committees. The Minister knows that she has all-party support for retraining those vocational education committees. There is all party support for the retention of the Drogheda Vocational Education Committee which is bigger than any of the smaller county vocational education committees and caters for more than 2,000 pupils. I urge the Minister to tread carefully in her [411] decisions about that vocational education committee.

The Minister referred to the fact that the Commission on School Accommodation Needs has been open in its deliberations. I hope it will take into account the views of Members and other public representatives on the vocational education committee structure. I also hope the Minister will consider the views of Members on all sides about reducing the number of vocational education committees. These unnecessary boards will merely reduce the influence and power the Minister acknowledged vocational education committees have had for the past 60 years. If something is working well, why fix it?

Mr. Cullen: Information on Martin Cullen  Zoom on Martin Cullen  I commend my colleagues for bringing this important motion before the House. While the Minister may believe she will be able to implement this measure with ease, storm clouds are gathering. Members from all sides of the House, those who benefit from the wide range of services provided by the vocational education committees and those who deliver the services have grave concerns about this proposal.

I was amazed at the Minister's speech. It must be galling for those who have given a lifetime of service in the vocational education committees to listen to the Minister's pious platitudes while at the same time she wields the axe to cut the ground from under them. She did not put forward a convincing argument for setting up these boards. She spoke in vague terms about providing for the effective concentration of resources. What does that mean? She referred to costs, but costings have not been done. Deputy Coughlan outlined the increased costs incurred in setting up regional boards in Northern Ireland. The extra resources will not be delivered to those who need them most, they will compound the increased bureaucracy required to deliver the services.

[412] The Minister's reference to decentralisation flies in the face of what will happen to the vocational education committees and the regional boards. This is an attempt to recentralise, to wrest control from county level and give it to regional boards which can be more easily managed and controlled by the Department. Let us wipe the decentralisation suggestion off the slate, the setting up of these boards has nothing to do with decentralisation. This is the most bizarre decision taken by the Government and it will be fought by our party and many others in the educational system. If the Minister is successful in convincing her colleagues in Government, particularly the backbenchers in the Labour Party, to implement this issue, it will be reversed by the Fianna Fáil Party. It is extraordinary that a Labour Party Minister should make this proposal when it is supposed to be interested in bringing in the lowest common denominator in the decision making process. This proposal would wrest control from those who have successfully delivered these services for many years. There is nothing in the Minister's speech to suggest that the vocational education committees have failed to carry out their functions. This is merely a notional idea put together by the Minister and her officials.

The Minister talked about a commission. During my time in this House no other Minister has produced so many glossy documents or set up so many costly commissions, none of which has helped to deliver a better education system. About £200,000 has been expended this year on the commission. How many remedial teachers might have been provided with that kind of largesse from a Minister who is on an ego trip to perpetuate a notion of hers? The proposal is extraordinary. It is sinister in its concept and, despite her earlier platitudes, the Minister said nothing to change my mind.

The Minister proposes to tear down a structure that has been the envy of

[413] Europe. I have had the privilege of serving on a vocational education committee board. I admit I had a healthy scepticism about what people involved in the boards engaged in. Although I cannot attend meetings as often as I would like, I attended often enough to see the extraordinary commitment at a range of levels to delivering education in its broadest sense, and to see people struggling with limited resources, but only one clear objective — to ensure that whatever funding is available will be spent on those who need it, not on the administrative structures that deliver the service.

The Minister's proposal is extraordinary at a time when we have, rightly, focused on the human resources programme available through the Minister's Department and the tremendous funding from Europe. If we are to deal with unemployment, the only way is through the education system. The vocational education committees have been to the forefront in creating new services needed in the education system. In many cases they went beyond their remit, without having to look over their shoulders, and delivered services into the community which were ahead of their time to meet educational needs. They have brought people back into the education system. They are retraining people. Consider the contribution being made by the VTOS and Youthreach schemes. All the schemes within the vocational education committee structure run on limited resources but at all times maximising what is available. Despite this, the Minister proposes to set up ten regional boards, removed from where the needs are, to sit in judgment on what might be divided in a much larger area. We know from experience that there are many occasions when different counties, for different reasons, at different times, have different needs. It is those primarily involved who are best able to cater to those needs. They can react and focus resources and make the correct decision to ensure that the services required at [414] any given time are being made available. The Minister's proposal is to remove all that in the name of so-called decentralisation which, clearly, it is not.

Nobody is saying that the vocational education committees are perfect. Nothing in any democracy is so perfect that it does not need adjustment, modernisation, enhancement or change. The vocational education committees would accept, in a changing world, that changes are needed. Their proposal to have one vocational education committee in each county is correct — many counties have two vocational education committees. Changing that is a step in the right direction, but there is more to it than that. It must be recognised that development, change and flexibility is essential, and that this is best decided on and delivered at the level at which the vocational education committees operate.

The extraordinary decision that was taken many years ago to set up regional colleges under the guidance and control of the vocational education committees would not have been made were it not for the drive and the vision of people within the vocational education committee structure that delivered those colleges; they had to go beyond their remit and they had the courage to do it. They also had the local knowledge to make decisions about what was needed. It is a tribute to those in the vocational education committees at all levels that that structure has become so important in our education system. If we were sitting at the regional board structure, would we have that system today? Would we have a further education system being delivered? Would we be bringing people back into education who have been out of the education system for a long time? Education and training is central to any achievement and that has always been recognised by the vocational education committees.

It is suggested that we can run a two-tier or twin-track system consisting of regional boards and vocational education committees. The vocational education committees will be neutered and [415] nothing the Minister said this morning persuades me that the vocational education committees will survive. They will not, and it is dishonest to suggest otherwise. If the Minister lacks the courage to be up front about it, she should not be doing what she is doing because there is nothing in what the Minister said since the White Paper was published that would lead one to any other reasonable conclusion than it is the long arm of the Department that is behind the creation of this new structure.

It is not a structure that is required in our education system. If the system is not broken why are we trying to fix it? The Minister may smile, but we recognise that there is a capacity in any organisation for change. The vocational education committees have changed. I have outlined what they have done in recent decades, but the Minister suggests that we are dealing with a staid old organisation. Something else that is interesting about the vocational education committees, different from many of our other semi-State bodies that build empires to foster their own ego without any regard to the services they are delivering, is that the vocational education committees never took that approach. That is a compliment to the people who are on the vocational education committee boards, including public representatives.

I have never attended a meeting where a party-political stance has been taken, because people realise the importance of the work of the vocational education committees, and that decisions made at that level are crucial for the communities they represent, for the children who seek to be educated. We need the structure of the vocational education committee, and the dynamism that exists within that structure. If the Minister tears down this structure it will take us years to recover. If this is pursued it will be one of the worst political decisions I have ever seen.

It is unacceptable that the Minister [416] should try to foster this new structure when few if any really want it. As to those who are some way inclined towards it, it is because they feel frozen out for other reasons, but we do not need regional boards to deal with such issues: we need a structure that works. The structure we have is the envy of everybody in Europe.

Why, when we go abroad or speak in this House or in the European Parliament, do we talk about our educational system? It is because it is the envy of many countries in Europe and throughout the world. We are proud of it, and rightly so, because the level of training skills of our youth are our greatest asset. In the midst of this growth and opportunity, the Minister wants to tear it down. It is a cynical exercise on the part of the Minister, one I can assure her she will not win, not merely because Fianna Fáil in Opposition wants to oppose it but because it is wrong. She will not win because those in the educational system will not allow her move in the direction she proposes. We have seen too much of this type of cynical exercise in the past which cannot be allowed to continue.

Debate adjourned.

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