Wednesday, 15 May 1996
Dáil Éireann Debate
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:
Mr. Browne: (Wexford): Last night a number of Deputies mentioned the lack of public representation on these new boards. The political parties on all sides of the House regard it as a major issue. Over the last two days a number of Deputies expressed serious concern as to whether there will be adequate and appropriate representation on the boards. It is an issue which needs to be addressed seriously.
There has been some strong criticism of the role of public representatives on vocational education committees down through the years. I was a member of a vocational education committee in Wexford for many years. I always found that the public representatives on the board made a valuable contribution to the educational structures in the county, as I am sure they have done on every vocational education committee around the country.
Regional boards do not work. If one looks at the health board structures one finds that many counties are not benefiting much from the regional structures. I am concerned that the same thing will happen under the educational regional boards. The number of counties tied to  each board is too large and it will remove the localised role whereby the parent, the teacher and the members of the vocational education committees can meet, discuss and talk frankly about problems they may envisage in education in their county. A regional board will be based in some central point and it will be very difficult to gain access or to make direct contact with the people involved.
The vocational education structures at present are more than adequate to meet the needs of the changing structures in education. It is important that parents, teachers, FÁS and others are represented on the vocational education committees, a number of vocational education committees have moved in that direction already. In Wexford there are both parent and teacher representatives on the vocational education committee. Education can progress only if all the areas of education are represented on the vocational education committee. They should be allowed to continue to play the valuable role they played in the past.
There is a suggestion in the Minister's speech that some of the vocational education committee structures may be abolished and the town of Wexford vocational education committee is often mentioned. The Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, is very much aware of the important role the town of Wexford Vocational Education Committee plays in the education system in Wexford town. They have had some magnificent results with students. A new school was built there last year because of the strong representations made by the town of Wexford vocational education committee and by the county's public representative. It would be a major blunder to see that vocational education committee structure abolished in any rationalisation or change envisaged by the Minister.
The town of Wexford vocational education committee, which has been in place for 60 years, has made a magnificent contribution to educational  development in Wexford town. The late Dick Corish and the late Dr. Jim Ryan were to the forefront in ensuring that when the vocational education committees were established the town of Wexford had its own vocational education committee structure. We all know the valuable contribution made by the late Dick Corish and the late Dr. Jim Ryan to Wexford generally. It would be ironic if a Labour Minister was to introduce proposals to abolish the town of Wexford vocational education committee which provides many different types of education beyond the junior or leaving certificate studies. It provides outreach courses from Waterford regional technical college and is involved in adult education and evening courses. Great credit is due to the principal of that school and to the committee for the many different facets of education being provided for the people of Wexford town. It is very important that the present structure of the town of Wexford vocational education committee is maintained, maybe with the addition of some parents, teachers or people from FÁS. It would not be right to abolish it. I ask Deputies Howlin, Yates and Doyle, who I know have a keen interest in the town of Wexford vocational education committee, to use their influence to ensure that this vocational education committee is maintained for the betterment of the students, teachers and the parents of Wexford.
Mr. B. O'Keeffe: Everybody must laud the role the vocational education committees have played in the progression of education. They were adaptable by virtue of their local nature and could change with the demands of time. I refer to the emergence of the regional colleges. Having lectured in a regional college I can say that the development of regional colleges was a natural progression from the vocational education committees. The result is that we have one of the best technological education institutes, which is recognised abroad.
The vocational education committees were structured on a county or a city  basis and, therefore, knew the demands of their areas. The members were enlightened people who knew exactly what the demands of education were as well as the demands of pupils and parents. What do we have today? I cannot understand the Minister and her proposals.
I could understand if the Minister said she was doing away with vocational education committees and bringing in regional boards but she is effectively proposing to abort the vocational education committees and put them in a nice little corner with no powers. A bureaucracy in a corner is going nowhere. I ask the Minister to think back to the establishment of regional health boards. Somebody came up to me recently at a meeting having been asked who was on their health board. People working within the health service itself could not name the people on that board. Small is beautiful and an integrated group like the vocational education committees are the ideal entity to transmit the demands of education for the future.
No costing has been done on these regional boards. Again, we should look back to the regional health boards. How recently did we have to get Exchequer finance to get them out of difficulty? Some £13 million had to be taken from the Exchequer to deal with the difficulties that arose. This Minister is bringing in regional boards without having thought out the difficulties which will arise as a result. She does not know the cost involved or the role they will play, yet she is leaving one level of bureaucracy intact and is establishing another layer. That does not stand up to scrutiny.
Anybody who looks at this proposal from the point of view of the cost structure must be conscious that under this system we will achieve nothing but the escalation of the cost of educating pupils. The Minister will agree that our basic interest is in getting resources into schools and ensuring that our children get the best possible education and the best possible educational facilities. Is  the Minister saying that having a vocational education committee in one place and a regional board somewhere else will not consume many scarce resources? That is tantamount to lunacy. The Comptroller and Auditor General is conducting a value for money audit of all State services. Now he will see this Minister establishing two bureaucracies and wasting a scarce resource that could be ploughed into the welfare of our young people. The proposal cannot stand up to scrutiny.
I have often spoken in the past about the multiplicity of certification bodies. It is daft. The NCEA is internationally recognised. There is also FÁS and CERT. Now there is Teastas. We are repeating the practice of establishing a multiplicity of groupings to look after education but it will not deliver. I am familiar with Cork City Vocational Education Committee and County Cork Vocational Education Committee and there are many more vocational education committees scattered throughout the country. Change was a necessity. We had too many vocational education committees and the number had to be reduced. By reducing the number of vocational education committees we could have achieved what the Minister had hoped to achieve but will not now achieve.
Regional education boards will not secure the interests of parents and pupils and will not deliver an education system that is proper and progressive in a technological age. They will be costly. A cost value analysis of the universities and the regional technical colleges showed that universities were costing £1,000 per student per year in excess of what the regional technical colleges were costing. Under this proposed structure I guarantee that within two years the cost of delivering education will rise dramatically. The Minister has no costings included in the programme for the regional education boards.
The Minister has not had the guts to deliver what should be delivered. Instead of cutting it neatly and opting for regional boards she decided on a  mishmash that will leave us much worse off and has aborted excellent vocational education committees which know exactly where they are going and what they are delivering to the local communities. The time is right to pull back. Many Deputies on the Government benches are glad that the Minister has permitted the continued existence of the vocational education committees. However, in what form will they exist? They have no reason for existence under what is proposed by the Minister.
Mr. S. Brennan: Our education spokesman, Deputy Martin, has made clear the Fianna Fáil position with regard to regional education boards. As a former Minister for Education, however, I wish to comment on the proposal.
The regional education boards are a formula for chaos, bureaucracy and interference. I deliberately omitted the proposal from the Green Paper on education when I was in office. I could see that they were unnecessary. I am disappointed that the Minister included the proposal in the White Paper and that it has been adopted by the Cabinet as Government policy. That was an expensive mistake.
Deputy Martin has asked many times about the cost of the regional boards. From my memory of my time in the Department and from initial costings I have calculated informally, I estimate the costs to be at least £20 million per annum. How was the Government able to approve the proposal without first telling the Dáil what it would cost, information which Deputy Martin has consistently sought from the Minister? My calculation of a minimum of £20 million per annum could reach £30 million. It is a serious matter that the Cabinet has approved that expenditure when the House has not been informed of it.
The boards are unnecessary and a recipe for meddling in schools because, as the boards grow fat, they will seek to justify their existence. The proposal will lead to a new, glossy brochure brigade  whose executives will be hell-bent on career path building. The money should be invested directly in our schools, in teaching, equipment and computers and in special education for disability and disadvantage, not in establishing a new layer of super boards with consequent executive perks all round. The boards will cause stress between themselves and the Department of Education and cause substantial stress beneath them as they seek to exercise their muscle and make decisions in time for their annual reports.
Only a Minister with no organisational experience would have the naivete to propose uncosted structures which are a recipe for chaos, bureaucracy and interference and will confer no educational benefit on children.
Mr. Nolan: This motion is timely. It sets out the Fianna Fáil position regarding the establishment of regional education boards. I wish to focus on the work of the vocational education committees since their establishment in 1930.
Our experience of regional boards does not inspire great confidence and the regional health boards offer a good example. Services to the community are cut back on a regular basis. I can speak from my experience on both the South-Eastern Health Board and County Carlow vocational education committee. We regularly hear about reductions in the number of hospital beds and shortages of doctors, nurses, specialists and consultants. We also hear of long delays in admitting patients for serious and urgent treatment and operations. The one area in which no cutbacks take place is administration.
By regionalising what is now a county structure we will fall into the trap of increased administration costs. Far from cutting costs and making savings, the opposite will be the case. While cutbacks and retrenchment occur in many services, in the regionalisation of the health services we witnessed increases in administrative personnel on an annual basis. Administration costs in  the existing vocational education committee system are under 5 per cent of total costs. If the cost of administration in the head office of a vocational education committee is determined in isolation, it is 2.3 per cent of total expenditure. That is a credit to the vocational education committees.
The argument in favour of regional boards does not stand up if one takes into consideration the vast programme of activities being undertaken and adequately served at present under the vocational education committee system. No one suggests that the vocational education committee system, which has existed since 1930, does not need to be reviewed. However, such a review should have as its core the elimination of restrictions on progress and the expansion of its brief to meet the requirements of the next century.
There is little by way of improvement in education, as envisaged in the White Paper, which could not be achieved by the establishment of a county board as distinct from a regional board. The strengths of the vocational education committee system could be retained and its role expanded and improved by the absorption of the vocational education committee into a new county education board. This would have many advantages, including the fact that schools would be close to the centre of administration, public representatives and parents would be from the locality as distinct from the regional area and representatives would be sensitive to local problems and requirements. It is important to have local input to local problems. Parents would have access to local representatives and be confident their concerns would be dealt with. We need a body which reflects local democracy and which has close contact with those whom it represents. It must also be publicly accountable. Why should we exclude the expertise available at vocational education committee level? I ask the Minister to include this in a county education board.
False statements about savings are all  we hear about in relation to the establishment of regional boards. There has been no reliable assessment of the costs. To suggest that savings can be achieved by the transfer of administrative staff is to ignore that staff will have to be compensated for such a move. This is standard practice in the public service. Some staff may not accept a transfer and will have to be compensated. Salaries of higher officials will be in excess of those enjoyed by vocational education committee administrative staff, having regard to the regional status of the employer, for example, the health board.
The Government should be careful when formulating proposals in this regard. The regional education boards will try to work from the top down. The present vocational education committee structure works from the bottom up and that is the way it should continue.
Mr. Aylward: I have spoken on this subject on previous occasions and I pointed out this proposal is not well founded. The support I have received across the education spectrum confirms my original objections to the plan and places an obligation on me to add my voice to those of my colleagues who oppose this proposal.
The White Paper on education published last year acknowledged the role played by the vocational educational committees in the development of the system which operates to the benefit of the partners in education. Many Members on all sides of the political divide know the valuable work carried out by the vocational education committees in their respective counties. Many Deputies and Senators still serve on the county committees and have gone on record to state their belief in the vocational education committee system. I find it difficult to understand how those Deputies in the Government parties can support the dissolution of the vocational education committees on which they serve, or may have served in the past.
It has been suggested that Fianna Fáil  has made a political football of this issue. I make it clear to the Members of the Dáil and the people we represent that this is not true. Reform of our education system always found support in the ranks of my party. Reform usually means a change which improves the system rather than changing it for the sake of change. The Minister appears to have taken little notice of this important fact in most of the proposals she has brought before us during her term of office.
The proposal before us is that we should reject the planned regional boards and retain a system which we all know has served us well. I do not suggest — and I have never claimed — that improvement in every sphere is not possible. There are ways in which the vocational education committee system can be expanded and improved which would be welcome by all the partners in education. Fianna Fáil, in common with most responsible groups inside and outside this House, would give broad support to a range of measures designed to improve the efficiency of our vocational education committees. We cannot, however, support the abolition of the committees in favour of new, unwieldy structures such as those proposed by the Minister.
The present vocational education committee system provides for the management of certain second and third level institutions on a county by county basis. A brief examination of the mandate of each separate committee will show what the number of institutions and the range of services provided by each vocational education committee is considerable. The Minister now wishes to reduce the number of authorities in the country to ten. This will place an intolerable burden on the proposed new regional authority. I pointed out on previous occasions that the geographical areas allocated to the proposed boards will, in some cases, cover as many as five separate counties. If the Minister is so insistent that the management of education within county boundaries is  beyond the capability of a county committee supported by her Department, then she must realise that the management of education with a larger area will not be approved under the rationalisation scheme. The energy and resources needed to create the new regional boards would be better expended in the expansion of the present committees and in the provision of additional funding to enable them to improve the quality of service.
The White Paper proposes wide-ranging powers for the regional boards. It places new obligations on schools at every level which would be overseen by these boards. We are given to understand that the proposed statutory powers to be conferred on each board are designed to reassure the public that the guiding principles of quality, equality, pluralism, partnership and accountability have priority. This is not only acceptable but desirable. The statutory powers provided for in the White Paper could be conferred on county committees with reasonable ease and would have exactly the same effect on education. The mandate of the county committee can be expanded to cover areas currently outside its remit just as easily as new authorities can be appointed. The fact that all this can be achieved while retaining the principle of the county committee is of great benefit to education.
The Minister made much in recent years of her desire to empower people. She claims she wishes to see the future of education in the hands of the people in general and the partners in education in particular. This can hardly be achieved by centralising the authorities which are charged with such great responsibility. Centralisation in any field goes against all the progress in society over the past quarter of a century. It is a retrograde step and cannot bring real reform to our education system.
We have long recognised that centralisation of power leads to increased marginalisation among certain sectors of  our society. The weak, the underprivileged and the isolated are particularly vulnerable. This is true of every type of human activity, whether social, cultural or commercial. It is equally true that the varied strands which combine to form the network of education in Ireland today contain those which are stronger than others, those with better resources and those which need support. It took us years as a developing nation to realise that those who had access to the centres of power could benefit to a greater extent than those who did not. For this reason successive Governments took measures to devolve power through a policy of decentralisation.
The Minister for Education, Deputy Bhreathnach, comes from a privileged urban background. She displays little or no understanding of the reality of life for many rural communities. Given the sad state of employment, we must acknowledge that the most important assets many of our rural communities possess are their schools and ancillary education facilities.
Depending on the level of education offered in an area, the number of people with a vested interest in the type and quality of that education may vary. What rarely differs, however, is the commitment of the community to the development of its schools. A wide range of talents in every part of this island is drawn on on a daily basis to the benefit of all. The people who give so freely of their time, energy and talents to their communities deserve to have more and not less say in the planning and management of education. This can only be done in an effective way by concentrating on what has proved effective to date.
I call on the Minister to abandon her proposals for regional boards and I ask Members to accept that the most effective way to manage our educational resources is on a county by county basis. I request the House to support the call for an audit of resources in each county with a view to discovering exactly what is necessary to establish and support a proper forum in all counties to foster a  co-ordinated approach to education. These fora, working in co-operation with the Department, would produce a system of education from pre-school onwards, which might have some chance of maximising the advantages at local level and they could target the conditions which lead to disadvantage. I hope commonsense will prevail on this occasion and Members will put aside party political considerations and support this initiative which has implications for future generations of students as well as those in the field of education today.
Ms E. Fitzgerald: We have a unitary education system where not only policy is centralised in the Department of Education but also the detailed administration of issues which surely are better dealt with at local level, down to licks of paint for school doors, the replacement of school windows and tiles missing from school roofs. As a result of this excessive centralisation, the Department has been more concerned with administration than with issues of educational policy.
Education is a service which, of its nature, is delivered locally. The school is an important part of the local community. However, in many communities there are multiplicities of different schools reporting under different systems, not co-operating with each other. Children in these communities fall between a number of schools because our separate structures for pre-schools, primary schools, secondary schools and vocational schools do not knit together to provide a unified and integrated services for the communities they serve.
At two levels it is important that we set up a system or regional education boards. First, we should devolve from  the Department issues which should not be centralised in a national administration. A Department cannot be efficient if it deals with nuts and bolts issues for 4,000 schools throughout the country. The Department, whether in Marlborough Street in Dublin or in offices in Athlone, cannot know the details of the needs of individual communities. It is in these communities these details can best be handled. Second, it is extremely important in terms of co-ordination, co-operation and rationalisation of facilities that scarce resources be used for the benefit of the whole community. The services of a specialist teacher of a particular subject should be used by a number of schools. A specialist laboratory should be shared between adjoining schools. We must develop co-operation. This exists in some but not all communities. Too often adjacent schools compete with each other rather than co-operate.
One of the most important references in the White Paper with regard to education boards was to the importance of an education plan. Each regional board should draw up a plan for education in its area, which would identify and address local needs. In a number of areas, we would nearly need a CAO system to get children into primary schools. Children must bypass primary schools at the end of their streets because these schools recruit children from suburbs and communities three, four or five miles away. Schools turn away local children and are not accountable to anybody in their local communities.
There is a need, given the overlap of school catchment areas, to ensure there are structured ways of achieving co-operation between schools under different managements which serve the same community. This is not to take from the ethos or individuality of each school but to acknowledge that the community, which pays for education through the tax system, is entitled to ensure that educational resources are used to the maximum effect for its children.
The White Paper deals with early  school leaving. This is of supreme importance, and co-operation between schools, under a board with a comprehensive plan, is absolutely essential. I am a member of the National Economic and Social Forum, which is preparing a report on this issue and its links to long-term unemployment. At the moment, if a school suspends a difficult child or if a child does not come back to school in September, there is no structure for tracking what has happened to him. Yet, we know that youngsters who drop out of school at 13 or 14 years of age are likely to sign on the dole for the rest of their days once they become entitled to do so at 18 years. Young people who leave school without qualifications, who drop out or are pushed out of school are at a high risk of becoming tomorrow's long-term unemployed.
The school attendance system belongs to the Stone Age. It operates in Dublin City and a number of other areas. In some places, it is the responsibility of the Garda Síochána to enforce school attendance. There is effectively no school attendance policy in areas of County Dublin, which have the greatest pockets of poverty. In areas classified as county areas the Garda has too much to do with regard to crime and does not have the facilities or expertise required in the area of school attendance problems. We have poor structures for addressing early school leaving and for tracking youngsters who drop out of school early. The establishment of school boards and the possibility they offer of a co-ordinated and locally based approach will enable us to address this serious problem much more effectively.
Deputies raised concerns about the accountability of education boards. All parties with an interest in primary and post primary education — teachers, parents, school owners, elected representatives and local communities — will be represented on these boards. None of them had a voice in the established statutory administrative structures. The boards will be accountable to this House and through the Comptroller and Auditor General to the Committee of Public  Accounts for value for money. Each board will be required to take measures on proper planning, reporting, inspection and budgeting and will prepare a five year educational plan. Boards will also prepare annual operating programmes and budgets, which will be approved by the Minister. They will be obliged to make annual reports on their performance, which will be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. As Accounting Officer, the director of each board will be subject to annual scrutiny by the Committee of Public Accounts.
It is time we moved on from the assumption, dating from the time of the establishment of the rudiments of the educational system in Ireland with the setting up of national schools in the 1840s, that a single Department can deliver everything at national level. The proposal for boards, which emerged from a most democratic an unprecedental process of consultation on the White Paper, will lead to greater democracy, accountability, rationalisation and co-operation. It will result in better value for money and, most importantly, better educational outcomes for young people.
Mr. Creed: It has become a national pastime, particularly for politicians, to pay lip service to local government reform and to devolution of powers from central authority to the communities where they are best delivered and understood. However, this has reached a new low with the motion before the House. Almost every day on the Order of Business Opposition Deputies inquire about Government proposals for local government reform or devolution, yet in this motion the same party seeks to destroy a Government proposal which would bring about meaningful reform of the education system and allow for local input by parents, teachers and those who know how the service can best be delivered at a local level. This should come as no great surprise because the motion is put down by the same party which, in one fell swoop in 1977, undermined the financing of  local government. We have not yet recovered from this and it is proving extremely difficult politically to do so.
The motion implies that local communities, parents, teachers and public representatives are not the best people to decide how their local education system should be structured or delivered. In fact, we need more proposals such as the one from the Government — more services should be delivered, policed and implemented at local level than is the case at present. The next such move should be in the Department of Justice. Many of its services which are currently delivered nationally could best be delivered at a local level.
Before we look at implementing new structures we should take account of the present situation. The Department of Education has a budget in excess of £2 billion; leaving out third level facilities, it runs over 4,000 schools at primary and secondary level; and it employs thousands of teachers and other support staff. Its system is entirely bureaucratic and unsuitable to delivering an efficient, accountable service. Every Deputy knows only too well the frustration of getting involved with the Department, whether about special education services, pupil teacher ratios, or primary or second level schools. I have recently been in contact with the Department about necessary improvements in Inchigeela, Dromleigh and Aghanigh national schools. One always receives vague replies to the effect that the matter is not in this year's order of priorities or is under consideration, but one knows what is taken into account when determining that. The regional education boards would clean the window and allow some transparency about educational policy. Local people would know what is necessary within a fixed budget and what services to prioritise. To date that does not happen and for that reason alone the boards are a welcome development.
Deputy Batt O'Keeffe said that people did not know who the members of their local health boards were. Like  the Deputy, I am a health board member and when an issue arises I have never found that the public has difficulty identifying who should be contacted and where best to articulate its views. Compare that to trying to articulate one's views in the present education system, which is wholly unsatisfactory. If this Government had proposed to abolish the health boards and set up county tiers — which is the direct implication of the Fianna Fáil motion if applied to the health sector — the Opposition spokesperson, Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn, would put down a Private Members' motion to attack it. The Government is proposing meaningful reform and the Opposition has felt obliged to find a spurious reason to oppose it.
The composition of the regional education boards mirrors the structures already in place in the health services. Primary and secondary teachers and parents of primary and secondary pupils will be included, as will local public representatives, which lends the scheme the hallmark of true accountability. Ministerial nominees will also be included and I welcome the decision to allow appointees from Gaeltachtaí on to regional boards for those areas.
If there is one way in which the proposals are slightly disappointing it is in the relationship between the new boards and the vocational education committees. This is a personal opinion because I am not a vocational education committee member and many colleagues on this side of the House would not share my view. In the context of establishing regional education boards, we should consider whether vocational education committees have a meaningful role to play in the future. In response to these changes vocational education committees have run an effective and vocal campaign to guard their territories. Many Members do not have an open mind on this issue, having served on vocational education committees. I am the first to acknowledge that the  committees have provided a good service but they have become outdated and it is time to look afresh at all the issues.
The proposed relationship between the new boards and the vocational education committees is similar to that which exists between the health boards and the voluntary hospitals. Efforts are now being made to change that arrangement — in the future health boards will receive money from which they will fund those hospitals. The current relationship was a mistake from the first day although questions of propriety and ownership had to be considered, as may also be the case with the vocational education committees. We should clear the decks and establish true and meaningful regional education boards, subsume the vocational education committees into them and do away with the current structure. There is no great validity in the argument that they should be maintained.
Another area where similar issues arise is the debate about whether there should be a specific board to deal with Irish language education, encompassing Gaeltacht areas and Gaelscoileanna. I am not convinced of that argument — such a board would only serve to pig-eon-hole and isolate the language rather than integrate it and cultivate a climate of bilingualism. This has similarities with the vocational education committee debate. Vocational education committees became stigmatised as the vocational and technical sector and some people took the attitude that their son or daugther would not be seen dead in the “tech”. The danger of similarly stigmatising Irish is one reason that a board specifically dealing with Gaeltacht areas would not be a good idea.
I also remain unconvinced for practical reasons. Part of my constituency, around Ballyvourney and Ballymakeery, is a Gaeltacht area and at present it contains two excellent second level schools run by the vocational education committee. Would a regional education board specifically for Gaeltacht areas or Gaelscoileanna have dealt with the problems of those schools over the last  few years in as sympathetic and understanding a fashion as the vocational education committee has? Tribute is due to the vocational education committee in that context. The Gaelscoileanna will have problems in terms of the funding and pupil-teacher ratio advantages they have enjoyed. The Minister has left us hanging on this issue because we are not sure what protections can be built in to facilitate those schools.
I am convinced of the need for a special board. The types of soft supports which have been missing, such as the area of text book production and so on, for the last 50 years from the Department of Education can be dealt with quite well under a regional board, rather than a board which is geographically far removed from the territories it administers. I support the establishment of the boards because it is a step in the right direction. It is democratic and involves parents, teachers, local communities and local public representatives.
Minister of State at the Department of Education (Mr. Allen): I hope to have the opportunity to respond to a number of the issues which have been raised during the course of this debate. In doing this, I wish to clarify a number of misunderstandings which Deputies on the Opposition benches appear to hold concerning the education boards.
 Some Members of this House appear not to understand fully and clearly the rationale behind the Education Bill, 1996. Some profess not to see the necessity for the proposed education boards. Other are blind to the significant opportunity presented by the establishment of the boards. To all of them I say that education boards represent a most important opportunity for this House to endorse and build on the success of the education system and, in so doing, to put in place a new modernised structure which will be capable of leading the education system into the next millennium.
During the debate I have been astonished and bemused to hear a number of Deputies accuse the Minister of failing to keep this House informed of the progress in developing the proposals for educational boards. These accusations are completely without foundation. The proposals represent the culmination of a long and painstaking process of consultation with all of the relevant interests — teachers, parents, school managements and many others.
Mr. Allen: Not only has a long consultative process been undertaken with all concerned in formulating these proposals, but also this consultative process represents a new and historic departure in the formulation of Irish education policy. Never before has such an extensive process of consultation been undertaken with the partners in education. Never before have all the partners been given so many opportunities, over such a long period, to make a significant input into the formulation of policy. The Minister for Education has consulted the partners in regard to the present proposals in a way never even dreamt of under previous administrations.
It is precisely because we have engaged in such a long and fruitful process of consultation that I know with certainty the proposals which the Minister for Education is now making have  widespred support. It is precisely because they have such widespread support that the proposals which the Minister is now making represent the only way forward in Irish education. To review the full consultation process, which took over four years and represented the most extensive process of consultation ever undertaken in the education area, would take up all of the very short time available to me tonight.
Having listened most carefully to the contributions of Members, I feel it is vital to reiterate the rationale behind the establishment of the education boards. These boards have been portrayed by some ill-informed Opposition Deputies as a meaningless layer of bureaucracy — a waste of taxpayers' money at a time when there are so many other calls on the public purse. I strongly reject such views.
Mr. Allen: The rationale behind the education boards is quite simple. Education boards will devolve authority from the centre to the regions, and I thought we would all be in favour of devolution. Education boards will bring the administration of education and the provision of support services closer to the people who use them, giving a real sense of ownership to all those who have rights and responsibilities in education.
The boards will mean that the education service will respond more flexibly and more sensitively than ever before to the needs of local people. Important decisions on education services will rest with the people most affected. Education boards will mean that education resources will be used more efficiently and effectively than before. The Department of Education will be able to focus its attention on the development of national education policies.
Some Opposition Deputies have alleged that the establishment of the education boards will carry with them very substantial costs. All sorts of quite  extraordinary cost estimates have been plucked out of the air. It is a priority of this Government to ensure the best possible educational service is available to all the children of Ireland. We will not compromise on this.
Mr. Allen: The education system which we currently provide — one to which we can look with some considerable pride — costs money. The Department of Education provides more than £2 billion every year for education.
Some Opposition Deputies have alleged during this debate that the education boards will, in some way, compete with the vocational education committees. Nothing could be further from the truth. I remind Deputies that all those concerned with the education system in Ireland have but one single aim — the welfare of students. We are all on the same side, or at least we should be. I wonder if we are. We are all working to the same end. There is no question of competition between us.
The education system cannot afford duplication. We have neither the human nor the financial resources to support such duplication. The proposals set out in the White Paper are clear and unambiguous in this regard. They are open to only one interpretation. I am mystified as to how any other interpretation is possible.
Misgivings have been expressed by some Opposition Deputies over the geographical remit of the education boards as set out in the White Paper. Some Deputies have suggested that, if there is to be a regional structure it should be established along county lines. There have been suggestions that any geographical remit larger than the county areas will result in the education boards being unable to manage effectively the needs of their regions. I reject this argument completely and would like to take the opportunity to put the matter to rest for good.
As the Minister said here last week, the main criterion used to decide on the  geographical remit of the education boards is how best to meet the education needs of local areas. The aim is to strike a balance between, on the one hand, introducing realistic devolution, regional planning and co-ordination in the delivery of educational provision, while, on the other, avoiding excessive fragmentation of service delivery. The merits of a county-based system of education boards were carefully analysed at a number of levels. It quickly became clear that an intermediate education tier at county level could not operate either effectively or economically.
The achievement of major educational change is a very difficult process in any society. The degree of change now being proposed for education is very extensive. Education touches closely on values, loyalties, allegiances and attachments. It is understandable that people are very sensitive and concerned when significant educational change is on the agenda.
There is a place at times of change for defending positions and setting down organisational aspirations. I believe there is a greater priority for self-examination, self-criticism, innovation and creative thinking. There has been a marked absence of innovative and creative thinking from the Opposition benches during this debate.
Mr. Allen: A society which hopes to develop and improve the qualify of life of its citizens needs to plan for the future of its education system in a sophisticated and sustained way. A society which is not prepared to plan intelligently and with courage to shape and change its educational system in line with new and emerging needs of its citizens and of society as a whole is doomed to decay. It is, therefore, vital that we face the need for change with wisdom, vision, courage and commitment. The responsibility is ours, in our generation, and should not be shirked.  Undoubtedly the challenge is significant. The opportunity is also great. We should set our sights high so that we are worthy of those who went before us, worthy of the issues which face us and worthy of our current and future citizenry, whose interests we are called upon to serve.
Ó tharla nach bhfuil ach cúig nóimead agam ní bheidh deis agam a rá leath ar mhaith liom a rá. Is é an trua é go bhfuil a laghad sin ama ag páirtí an fhreasúra sa díospóireacht seo agus go gcaithfimid an t-am a roinnt. Tá go leor spéise ag muintir an fhreasúra sa cheist seo. Is léir nach bhfuil an spéis chéanna nó an croí céanna ag páirtithe an Chomhrialtais sa scéal.
Bíodh sin mar atá, tá mé in amhras faoi choincheap na mBord Oideachais. Is é an tuairim atá agam gurbé a tharlóidh ná go mbeidh deis i bhfad níos fearr ag na meánscoileanna agus ag na scoileanna móra thar mar a bheidh ag na scoileanna beaga. Sin díospóireacht nach bhfuil dóthain ama dáirire tugtha dó agus nach bhfuil dóthain aird tugtha dó ach oiread. Beidh sé an-deacair ag cuid de na scoileanna aon-oide i mo cheantarsa mar shampla, dul i gcomórtas le scoileanna a bhfuil idir 800 agus míle dalta iontu, a bhfuil rúnaithe lánaimsire iontu, agus a bhfuil daoine lánaimsire i mbun na scoile agus gan de chúram orthu ach ceist na scoile.
Ba mhaith liom san am atá fágtha agam díriú ar cheist scolaíochta tré Ghaeilge agus diúltiú an Aire Oideachais fiú castáil le muintir na Gaeltachta leis an gceist seo a phlé. Is mór an náire don Aire nach bhfuil sí sásta casadh go díreach le hionadaithe na scoileanna lán-Ghaeilge agus na scoileanna Gaeltachta le míniú cén fáth nach bhfuil sí sásta Bord Oideachais faoi leith a chur ar fáil don Ghaeltacht.
 Níl mé i bhfábhar na mBord Oideachais mar adúirt mé ach tá gá le strúctur faoi leith don Oideachas tre Ghaeilge. Tá teipthe go hiomlán ar an Roinn Oideachais seirbhísí tré Ghaeilge a chur ar fáil do na scoileanna lán-Ghaeilge. Tá teipthe go hiomlán orthu cursaí inseirbhíse a chur ar fáil. Tá teipthe orthu painéal múinteoirí a chur ar fáil a bhfuil ar a gcumas múineadh tré Ghaeilge agus Gaeilge a bheith acu mar mheán coitianta sa scoil.
Tá teipthe ar an Roinn Oideachais téacsleabhair a chur ar fáil. Tá teipthe orthu seirbhísí ar nós seirbhísí sláinte agus siceolaíochta a chur ar fáil tré mhéan na Gaeilge. Bíonn fadhbanna ann seirbhísí tre Ghaeilge a chur ar fáil do dhaoine a bhfuil fachbanna labhartha acu mar shampla. Téitear isteach sna scoileanna agus fíafraítear de na múinteoiri cén fáith nach labhrann tuismitheoirí na Gaeltachta Béarla lena bpáistí i dtreo is nach mbeadh fadhbanna teanga acu. Is mór an náire gur mar sin atá an scéal. Má chuirtear na Boird Oideachais ar bun mar atá molta is é an rud a tharlóidh ná go mbáfar an Ghaeilge taobh istigh de na Borid agus is é an Béarla go hiomlán a bheidh in uachtar.
Ba mhaith liom ceist a chur ar an Aire freisin cén míniú atá ar an scéal go naithnítear an Ghaeltacht mar cheantar faoi leith ó thaobh reachtaíochta na tíre seo de. Tá Roinn na Gaeltachta ann agus tá Údarás na Gaeltachta ann. Aithnítear an Ghaeltacht mar cheantar agus mar limistéar náisiúnta ó thaobh na scéimeanna Leader de. Ach nuair a thagann sé go dtí cúrsaí oideachais níl an tAire sásta fiú a aithint go bhfuil an Ghaeltacht ann ar chor ar bith. Mar sin creidim, bíodh na Boird ann nó ná bíodh, tá gá le structúr éigin le freastal ar riachtanais oideachais tré Ghaeilge sa tír seo. Ach tá amhras an-mhór ann an bhfuil sé de láidreacht ag an Rialtas na Boird a chur ann mar is dóigh liom go dtuigeann siad anois gur dearmad iad.
Miss de Valera: That is not a new issue for Ireland. There have been proposals with the Department for some time and we have been talking about them since the early 1980s. The White Paper on Education suggests that there should be ten educational boards throughout the 26 counties. Much anger and bewilderment has been evident among those in education circles since the Minister first mooted her proposals concerning the regional boards. There have been many objections on financial, administrative, educational and practical grounds.
I was interested to hear the comments of a Deputy from the Fine Gael Party regarding the position of the health boards. If education was to follow developments on the health boards the same concerns may arise that we in County Clare, who are members of the Mid-Western Health Board, hold. It is our view, for example, that, because of their numbers on the board, other counties have greater opportunity to voice their concerns rather than looking after the health concerns of County Clare. I would, therefore, be delighted to consider any proposals the Fine Gael Deputy may have which offer alternatives, whether it be in regard to health or education.
The cost of establishing the ten regional boards would be better spent on providing more funds for other areas within our education system. The Minister of State said we should be prepared to spend our money on our young people; of course we should but we must make the distinction between spending money or administration and on services. I would much prefer to see money spent on services, such as remedial teachers, psychological and other services to look after children with special needs, for example, the provision of speech therapists, the refurbishment of schools and a more effective school transport system.
There is also a genuine fear that, in  setting up these regional boards, the unique focus on vocational education, which the vocational education committees provide, would be lost. Indeed, the vocational education committees have responded well and quickly to the specific needs of their areas and have set up many courses which deal with the difficulties facing people in their local areas, such as long-term unemployment, the establishment of adult literacy courses, PLC courses and now the development of European programmes and initiatives.
As I understand it, the Minister would like to see the role of public representatives in regard to education diminished. This approach is abhorrent as it does not acknowledge the excellent work done by our public representatives through the years. It would also divest education of its democratically elected and, therefore, directly accountable representation.
I wish to thank my colleagues, Deputies Martin and Coughlan, for attending a meeting I arranged for members of County Clare vocational education committee some months ago. At that meeting the members took the opportunity to present their document compiled following a meeting in November 1992 and attended by 32 people representing primary and secondary managements, parents, the three teacher unions and the community services sector. Much was discussed at the meeting and there was unanimous agreement on the necessity for a management tier, on the lines of the County Clare forum, in every county.
The County Clare forum referred to a number of issues such as the curriculum and certification, the PLC courses, home school liaison, the need for a forum for parents and teachers to share ideas, the rationalisation of certain services, building maintenance, the establishment of a resource centre for educational aids, the co-ordination of adult education services and the achievement  of equality. It was generally felt that such a body should encompass both the primary and second level system. Its use for representations in addition to co-ordination was also highlighted.
The County Clare vocational education committee members took the opportunity to present the report to Deputies Martin and Coughlan who suggested that this approach be used as a model on how to proceed in regard to local education. Rather than having education structures imposed from the top down, locally based concerns should form the basis for an education process similar to the County Clare forum. It is an appropriate model in this regard.
On behalf of Fianna Fáil I welcome the commitment of Deputy Martin. Fianna Fáil will oppose the Government's legislation to establish regional educational boards and will abolish any such boards established on return to office.
Mr. Power: When we refer to the White Paper and the need for change, the inference is that those who object to any aspect of it are against any change. That is not correct, there is much that is good in the White Paper and there is much that is good in Irish education. There have been education systems for approximately 1,500 years at national, continental and global level, we must know a fair bit about the subject at this stage.
The town which gives my native county its name, Cill Dara, was a famous seat of learning in the time of Naomh Brid, a millennium before Columbus discovered America. Why must we then look for educational inspiration in the USA, Great Britain or anywhere else? I am not saying that Irish education is perfect but it is not so badly flawed that a greater injection of resources and qualified personnel could not cure it.
In the original White Paper vocational committees were to be abolished and regional boards were to  supervise all primary and post primary schools in a region. Pressure from the Government's county councillor colleagues changed this to a promise to retain vocational education committees and the regional boards are to be called education boards. We now have an extra tier imposed between the Department, education boards, vocational education committees and schools and someone says that this is to bring it nearer to the people. This cannot be true but I suppose if one is making up a story, why not make up a good one? The Minister is getting used to it at this stage.
I have a copy of the submission made by Kildare vocational education committee to the commission on school accommodation needs and I will quote a few instances of the vocational education committee relating to the distinctive needs of its own area. It has helped the racing apprentice school of education. A scheme has evolved with a capacity to turn out 30 trainees each year and it has a 100 per cent job placement record. This is a great scheme in County Kildare — the home of the thoroughbred — and if one is doubtful about the qualifications of the trainees, ask Michael Kinane or any of the others involved in that successful scheme.
It has also helped the Army Apprentice School in Naas and has supplied teachers to this prestigious establishment since 1956. The Minister for Defence may feel that the future of the Army Apprentice School is in doubt, but there is no doubt as to the quality of the apprentices. The annual national awards gained bear adequate testimony to its expertise.
These two disciplines are at the heart of County Kildare's economy and part of what we are. Vocational training has helped them to attain the pinnacle of perfection. Will we forfeit this in a remote region as distinct from a caring county? It is bad enough to buy a pig in  a poke but at least one deserves to know the price even if one is not sure of the pig.
Of all the measures in the White Paper, the first action to be taken was to set up a commission and have it report at the end of the month on the rationalisation of vocational education committees. The commission is now meeting vocational education committees all over the country and for many of its members, it is a revelation —On first looking into Chapman's Homer revisited. To say one is rationalising any body is an indication that they are not too rational as matters stand. From my experience, Kildare vocational education committee is a rational unit. It is big enough with its ten schools to be a distinct unit and close enough to be responsive to the needs of the area, to be in close touch with its staff and students and capable of meeting their demands.
Every county will be different. Even in Kildare there will be great variations between Confey in Leixlip, a huge new town which is almost a suburb of Dublin, and Castledermot in south Kildare, a rural area where the local vocational school has been successfully amalgamated with a girls' boarding school in Colaiste Lorcháin. I cannot see a regional board comprising Wicklow, Bray and Kildare being as effective as the present county system. The promised retention of the vocational education committees will be a politically placating exercise which will emasculate the vocational education committees and they will emerge as glorified trustees.
While the Eastern Health Board improved some services in the area, it was found wanting and desperately slow to respond to a serious case of child abuse. The time lapse from the initial alarm bells and helpful action is not acceptable. Nobody can be sure that education regional boards will work, yet they are to be enforced on a national  scale. Is it fair to ask that one area should be first chosen as a pilot scheme to enable the Department of Education and the Minister to look before they leap.
Mr. Eamon Stack from the Department of Education recently spoke to teachers about whole school inspectors, a new concept that is important but minor compared to the idea of education boards to replace a form of vocational education and training that has stood the test of time for over 60 years. The whole school inspection will be first tried in an area on a pilot basis before it is imposed nationwide and the Department is prepared to modify or even change it if necessary. Why is the same principle not being applied regarding the major change to education boards?
This crazy and unnecessary proposal to put in place regional education boards is the first step in a crude attempt to abolish vocational education committees, proposed by Department officials and taken on board by a weak Minister. We are tired hearing about bottom up schemes, subsidiarity and local democracy while it is being taken from under our feet. The original proposal was to abolish vocational education committees but because of pressures applied it was decided to leave them alone for the time being and to abolish them at a later stage. There is no doubt in my mind about that.
I am a member of County Wexford vocational education committee. On many occasions we had debates and votes on this issue. The unanimous decision of its members, including many members of the Government parties, was to oppose this proposal.
I am a great believer, as I hope the Minister is, in the old adage “If it works,  don't fix it”. The vocational education committee system is working well. It is working in County Wexford and I am sure it is representative of all vocational education committees. We have increased our enrolment despite competition, which is a clear vote of confidence in a system that works. We have good schools in County Wexford.
An earlier speaker said it was time to change. He was suggesting change for change's sake, which is nonsense. We are putting an extra tier in place, which is the last thing we should consider, especially when we are not aware how much it will cost. There is no reason to replace a system that works. We are told by a person who has never been a member of a vocational education committee that it is outdated.
While I do not want to bore Members with a list of services offered by County Wexford vocational education committee, on account of what has been said I must do so. This vocational education committee provides ownership and management of vocational colleges; appointment of sub-committees for specific and specialist areas; vocational education training; adult, continuing and community education and literacy programmes; provision of religious education programmes; arts in education; operation of outdoor education centres; administration of third level grants and schemes; youth and sport programmes; leadership training; scholarship schemes; provision of a co-ordinator and programmes for local partnership; operation of an efficient school transport system; young travellers' education and training centre; networking of schools; community centre projects; health and safety projects; audits, remedial programmes and seminars; stock control; centralised purchasing; a teachers' substitute panel; attendance and absenteeism records; home school liaison; remedial guidance; psychological services; integrated provision of sports facilities; discipline; counselling  programmes; payroll, superannuation and teacher exchange programmes.
Mr. M. Brennan: I thank Deputy Martin for giving me at least two minutes of his time. The White Paper plays down the contribution of the vocational education committees to education and wishes they had never been set up. It makes unfounded statements which have no basis in fact, and then proceeds to build policies on unfounded assumptions.
What are the facets about the vocational education committees' contribution to education and training young people? Under the vocational education committees, the numbers of students in regional technical colleges and in the Dublin Institute of Technology grew from 11,500 in 1981 to 35,000 in 1993 and the number of full-time second level students grew from 85,000 in 1981 to 95,000 in 1993. Post-leaving certificate courses were started by the vocational education committees and the number of students in such courses grew from 8,300 in 1981 to 18,700 in 1993.
The vocational education committees are the byword for adult education. Their programme operates not only in schools but where the need arises: in people's homes, community halls, training workshops and prisons. Wherever the need is identified, the vocational education committees are prepared. For example, vocational training opportunity schemes were conceived and developed by the vocational education committees and given the go-ahead by the then Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy Woods, and the then Minister for Education, Deputy O'Rourke, in 1989. I have heard of these and many other vocational education committee  initiatives from other Deputies last night and this evening.
In my county, the vocational education committee co-operates with local people and organisations. In providing for educational needs, it co-operates with over 50 different local organisations and groups. Apart from assistance to the different organisations and sports clubs, the vocational education committee co-operates with over 40 State, semi-State and private organisations. The extent and depth of the vocational education committee programme and involvement at local level came as a surprise to the Minister's committee when it toured Ireland. It was no surprise to the people up and down the country who rely on vocational education committees, because of the local knowledge of vocational education committees and the involvement of elected local representatives in them. The Minister should not go ahead with this programme as the system we had is serving the country well.
Mr. Martin: I welcome the debate on our motion. Many Deputies from all parties in the House have made valuable and worthwhile contributions. To be specific for a moment, it is a pity that the Minister and, indeed, her Minister of State, Deputy Bernard Allen, did not avail of the opportunity to provide specific details of the proposals on regional education boards.
The Minister deliberately sidestepped the issue of cost in her contribution to this debate. The cost implication of the Minister's proposals are crucial to any consideration of them. In this respect, it is worth examining the costs of the Northern Ireland equivalent. There are five education and library boards in Northern Ireland. The cost of one of these, the South-Eastern Education and Library Board for 1995  is worth analysing. If one excludes the entire cost of teachers' pay, school meals, library service and student grants from these figures, the total 1995 expenditure for that board was £36 million. The White Paper on Education states that the proposed regional education boards will “supply library and media services”. If the cost of this service was added, an additional £4.3 million would be required. Therefore, the additional cost of the White Paper's proposals for regional education boards would be £40 million per board per annum based on the cost to the Northern Ireland service of its south-eastern board and the policy statements contained in the White Paper which details and outlines the type of services which these new regional education boards would be expected to provide. We could even add to these figures the cost of renting or building offices for the administrative headquarters of the ten regional education boards.
If the money is not available, the boards will not be in a position to provide the services which the Minister says they will offer to schools, parents, pupils and teachers. If the boards will not provide these services, the entire process will have been a sham. In other words, we want the name of being reformers but we are really not interested in meaningful reform and concrete reality. That is why the word “phased” is used time and time again in the Minister's speeches. Everything is to be phased in over five or ten years, that is, let us put it in legislation and let somebody else worry about it afterwards.
I do not think those services will be provided by these boards in the short-term because of the cost implications. The Minister had an opportunity to give details about costings in this House but she refused to do so. She also refused to do so in Question Time in this House.
Mr. Martin: The Department of Finance has refused to do so. This most transparent Government, which preaches accountability and transparency until we are all nauseated, has failed to give basic figures on costings in the context of this debate, so she cannot cry or complain if we make some attempt to try to cost this particular proposal. We will be left with ten administrative outposts of the Department of Education. It is worth nothing that the administrative element of the Minister's proposal alone will cost at least about £65 million. That estimate is based, again, on the Northern Ireland equivalent of a headquarters administration, that is, the South-Eastern Education and Library Board, the annual bill for which is about £6.5 million.
Clearly, therefore, the cost implications of these proposals cast doubt on whether they will ever be implemented. I wonder if the Department of Finance is prepared to publish the cost framework and analysis which it undertook on the White Paper costs in general so that we can have a more informed debate on the resources issue. The Fianna Fáil Party has been quite clear and definitive about this. If there are available resources in the education budget, they must be allocated and directed to the children in the schools in the first instance and to funding the provision of education in the schools in general.
I was somewhat taken aback by the arrogance of the Minister's approach to this debate and speech of the Minister of State who endeavoured simply to rubbish the contributions of Members from my side of the House. Deputy Creed, for example, argued that the vocational education committee system is outdated. I respectfully suggest that it is not but that Deputy Creed's view of it is outdated. He spoke about the tech  and the schools. The vocational education committees have actually been more radical than the Department of Education will ever be, because the VTOS scheme or the PLC revolution, the development of further education in which 20,000 students now participate, were led from the bottom up. Such innovations were developed by the teachers, the vocational education committee and the staff on the ground, and the Department is only belatedly responding to that initiative so it is a little much to have Government representatives and Deputies attempting to undermine in their contributions the effective and innovative contribution which vocational education committees have made to the development of modern education.
This side of the House acknowledges and recognises the need for co-ordination and co-operation in the provision  of education at local level. We have suggested a viable alternative way forward: the creation and establishment of fora of education in each county which could begin initially on a consultative basis, such as the example we illustrated in County Clare, which should be taken on a step to step approach. County loyalties are extremely strong in this country. The notion of having two intermediate tiers is a nonsense which should not be entertained. We have made a commitment, conscious of what it implies, that on return to office, we will abolish any regional education boards established and we will turn the clock back on this particular proposal. It is not a runner as far as Fianna Fáil is concerned, it will not be a runner as far as any future Fianna Fáil administration is concerned and that day is not far away.
Browne, John (Carlow-Kilkenny).
De Rossa, Proinsias.
Dukes, Alan M.
Durkan, Bernard J.
Ferris, Michael. Sheehan, P. J.
Gallagher, Pat (Laoighis-Offaly).
Higgins, Michael D.
Noonan, Michael (Limerick East).
Shatter, Alan. Timmins, Godfrey.
Browne, John (Wexford).
Burke, Raphael P.
de Valera, Síle.
Hilliard, Colm M.
Kitt, Michael P.
Morley, P. J.
Nolan, M. J.
Ó Cuív, Éamon.
Amendment declared carried.
Motion, as amended, put and declared carried.
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