Education Bill, 1997: Second Stage (Resumed).

Tuesday, 4 March 1997

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 475 No. 7

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Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

Mr. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  Before the debate was adjourned, I spoke about the penalties schools could incur by not establishing a board of management. Is it not the case that, if a vocational or Protestant school cannot be penalised, the only schools which can be under this system are Catholic voluntary and private schools? It would be strange if for the first time in this State there was a law which discriminated against Catholic schools. Will the Minister explain that?

The imposition of penalties has a net effect on the education a child receives. Our Constitution states that all children will be treated equally and are entitled to the same facilities and advantages. If some children are penalised because their masters did not put a board of management in place, is this not unconstitutional? I would like to hear the Minister's response and the legal advice she has obtained on this.

The role of the patron seems to be downgraded in the Bill. There are many references to the education boards consulting with various people but patrons are excluded. What is the explanation for that? Surely, it cannot be a conscious attempt to [1386] downgrade the role of the patron? If a member of staff is to be dismissed, it can be referred to the education board for a ruling. Surely, within a voluntary secondary school, for example, the role of the patron is to appoint a member of staff and in consultation with the board of management to ratify that appointment. Why should it be referred to a regional board if that member of staff is to be dismissed?

Another question arises as to the establishment of new schools. The Bill provides that any new school established must be built on property owned by the regional education board. Does that mean no group can establish a school without the property being owned by the regional education board? Why is that? Who will purchase this property? If it is not readily available for the establishment of a school, will the school be prevented from being formed because the regional education board does not own the property? If the property is available to some group prepared to build a school on it, will we deny it the right to do so? Is that in keeping with our Constitution which allows denominational groups to establish and operate their own educational facilities?

Ten regional education boards are proposed and the one for the Midlands would cover four counties and have a membership of 24 people. Of those, four would be public representatives. There is much disquiet that only four public representatives are deemed worthy to serve on the board. They have been elected by the public and should have a greater role in any such body. What about the four teachers appointed to the board? As it will cover four counties, how will we in Westmeath choose our one teacher to serve on the board? Will that teacher represent the primary sector, the vocational sector, the community college sector or the voluntary secondary sector? If we choose one from the primary level, does that mean four primary teachers will be on the board? Likewise, will there be parents on this regional board from the different types of schools? Who decides who will elect them and how they will be elected? The same applies to the boards of management, the patrons and the interested outsiders. Gender balance must also be maintained. Are we not taking an extremely difficult path which will make these mechanisms almost unworkable?

Coming from County Westmeath, I have a jaundiced view of vocational education committees and my colleagues understand why. Is it not crazy that there are 38 vocational education committees and that, while there are proposals to amalgamate some of them, many will be kept in place while regional education boards are established? Should the two sectors run in parallel or should we have one or the other? It is a topic worth debating.

On the role of the poor school principal in relation to this Bill, there are 3,200 principals at primary level and about 800 at second level. A typical principal in a five teacher primary school [1387] in a rural setting or small country town will now be burdened with more work. He must prepare, publish and distribute a school plan and an annual school report. I hope the latter will not be a recruitment document with glossy photographs; an advertising feature for the school. The principal is to identify the educational needs of his students. How is he to do this? How will he identify the needs of students who require special care? He must keep records. For how long? When will they be accessible to whoever is supposed to have access to them? He must also ensure parental involvement. How is he to liaise with parents on an almost full-time basis while doing his job? In the case of the principal of the five teacher primary school, he will have to teach 30 pupils at the same time.

This is supposed to be a document for the future strategy on education in Ireland. One crucial aspect for second level education in the future is school amalgamations in small towns. It is a thorny subject and the cause of endless difficulties. It is not clear how we should proceed with school amalgamations and how they will be resolved. In this document for the future there is no mention of them or how they should be dealt with. This topic should be addressed on Committee or Report Stage as second level education will greatly depend on how school amalgamations are negotiated. We can no longer tolerate two small secondary schools each with 200 pupils in small towns as they cannot offer the subject choices and range of activities that should be available to second level students. There is a need for such schools to amalgamate. The guidelines for school amalgamations should be laid down and included in the Bill. Will the Minister consider doing that?

While a number of points will be teased out on Committee Stage, I wish to refer to the withdrawal of recognition of schools. The Bill states that if recognition is withdrawn from a school the pupils can be taken into other schools, but what will happen to the teachers? That is not covered in the Bill. Will they be thrown on the scrap heap? Will they receive their salaries for the period the school is under review? If the school in question were operating independently, which I expect it would be, what would happen about accumulated expenses in terms of bills, a caretaker's salary and so on? Will those costs be covered? Those matters need to be clarified.

Miss de Valera: Information on Síle de Valera  Zoom on Síle de Valera  This Bill is about ministerial control and centralising power. It is an administrative nightmare. It does not go into the expenditure involved in running the boards. The Minister can reject or amend the operational plans of the boards. They must accept persons designated by the Minister as employees and the inspectorate is also under her control. It seems that the Minister and the director of a board will be pitted against the other board members.

There is a limited role for school principals in the Bill. Policy function is also a matter for the [1388] Minister. The boards of management will have less autonomy and freedom to manoeuvre than they have at present. Even though this Bill deals with structures, we have missed a golden opportunity. It is silent on the central matter of a teaching council which could deal with codes of professional practice as well as teacher qualifications and conduct.

The Minister has neglected the Gaeltacht areas in her considerations and perhaps at a later stage she will address them in detail. The appeals board proposed does not have a teacher representative. How can teachers be expected to have confidence in such an appeals system? No resources are provided for in the Bill to deal with the requirements of pupils with special needs. What has been provided in the Bill for principals who are already overburdened with work? They are now being asked to take on further responsibilities with the production of an annual report. I am sure they would be willing to do that and would agree with it in principle, but they are overworked and the Minister does not seem to recognise the day to day problems they face in attempting to do their work to the best of their ability in difficult circumstances. The main issue is where the funding will come from for the boards.

The voluntary secondary school sector is cash starved. These boards will need office accommodation, equipment, the provision of salaries and professional and administrative staff. In providing those facilities will we not be putting precious funding into another layer of administration? Schools are crying out for basic repairs, adequate classroom space, resources for children with special needs, scientific equipment and classroom materials. I am concerned that if education boards are instituted they would be not only cumbersome but ineffective in mirroring the problems of the counties and schools involved. We know that, irrespective of how hard the staff in health boards work, it can be cumbersome dealing with such bodies. We should not introduce another administrative layer into our education system.

There is a major lack of clarity about future operations and functions of vocational education committees which must be resolved in the interest of openess, transparency and accountability. How can a single board in, for example, the south east region, which consists of six local authorities, be responsible to such a diverse population dealing with urban areas and sparsely populated rural districts? For example, in County Clare the partners in education got together some time ago on a country basis and decided the way forward in education and what was best for the educational interests represented in that county. The Fianna Fáil spokesperson on education, Deputy Martin, has shown great interest in what the partners in education in County Clare have to show for their work and much of our policy on vocational education committees is based on that example.

This Bill, as constituted, will result in education boards becoming top heavy, unwieldy, bureaucratic, [1389] self-perpetuating structures and available funds will be absorbed in them. The vocational education committees are referred to in the Bill but the reference is woolly and unsatisfactory. We on this side of the House consider the county structure of education, particularly the one in my constituency of County Clare, is more in line with Irish traditions and loyalties. The proposed regional structure is too remote for individual schools. What will be the future of small localised school units in the proposed regional bodies? Educational boards will provide funding to each school as they consider appropriate. There is no indication as to what is considered appropriate funding. On what basis will funding be provided? There is too vague a basis on which to frame a Bill. The Minister will know the IVEA, the umbrella body for the vocational education committees, has proposed a county structure to subsume all vocational education committees and I would like that further debated by the Minister. The Government's proposal provides for 18 vocational education committees and ten education boards. It adds a further layer of unnecessary and costly administration to the system.

We all realise there are many areas of education that have not been given the type of funding that is badly needed. They include the psychological service, the remedial service, teachers, capital funding and special needs development. Another issue that is always lurking in the background in discussions on education is the problem of truancy, which has not been addressed adequately by the Government.

I wish to outline the position regarding the psychological service, the remedial service, capital funding and the definition of disadvantage with particular reference to my constituency in County Clare. The proposal that inspectors assess the psychological needs of students is not the appropriate approach to providing a psychology service. In 1986, at a meeting of the Association of Child Psychiatry and Psychology, teachers and psychiatrists outlined the type of service required by schools. Deputy O'Rourke set up two pilot schemes in Dublin West and Tipperary South in 1990. Since then, only ten additional psychologists have been appointed. The work that needs to be done through providing a psychology service in primary schools should be set as a priority not only by this but every Government.

I understand the Minister for Education, Deputy Bhreathnach, at a meeting with representatives of the Psychological Society in 1993, was hopeful that her Department would appoint ten psychologists per annum for the lifetime of the Government. However, the White Paper has further delayed appointments by suggesting that psychology services should be provided by local education boards when they are set up. This proposal has slowed down any likely progress in other areas. Eighty per cent of primary schools will not have any psychology service for a considerable time — perhaps for the lifetime of children currently attending primary school.

[1390] Adult psychology services in Clare comprise three psychologists and one trainee. Two psychologists are provided for community care and one for learning disability. At post-primary level, a part-time service is provided by one psychologist based in Galway and, at primary school level, there is no service. Community care psychologists offer services to children and adolescents, and their families, who have significant emotional and behavioural problems. The Brothers of Charity in Ennis do their utmost, although they do not have the staff, to deal with the difficulties associated with learning disability. As regards learning disability, if the same ratio used in other counties was applied to Clare, there should be four psychologists employed instead of one.

As regards the school population in County Clare, there are 20,000 students, 13,000 at primary level and 7,000 at post-primary level. There are two special schools, three special classes for learning disabilities, two special units for language disorder and the hearing impaired and classes for travellers. There is no school psychology service for the population at primary level while the post primary sector is serviced by one psychologist based in Galway. The screening services offered by the Brothers of Charity are operated under difficult circumstances as they are short at least three staff members. Three psychologists are required immediately for the primary sector and two for the post primary sector in Clare.

Another issue which should be addressed when discussing education is that of the definition of “disadvantaged”. I would prefer to see these practical problems addressed now rather than talking about a Bill that only deals with structures and does not even allude to their possible funding. We acknowledge and accept that there is social disadvantage in urban areas but there is also poverty and social disadvantage in rural areas. The Minister does not seem to understand that schools in county towns, for example, my county town of Ennis, are similar to many urban schools and would like to be part of the “Breaking the Cycle” programme, not least the national school in Cloughleigh, Ennis. This would be of great benefit to all the students in this school. These problems do not arise only in Dublin and the major cities but in rural towns also. I hope that even, at this late stage, the Minister recognises those needs.

The area of the special needs of primary school children is not alluded to in this so-called “Educational” Bill. For example, Scoil Mhuire in Lahinch, County Clare, needs the immediate services of a resource teacher. At present, five children with varying degrees of special needs, from junior infants to fourth class, attend the school. I hope the Minister will provide a resource teacher for this school. It is a four teacher school and the staff are doing their utmost not only to fulfil their responsibilities to the mainstream students but also to give every possible attention to those children with special needs. They feel they are not giving the necessary service to either group [1391] because of the lack of a resource teacher. I am sure the Minister realises how difficult it is to teach when there are differing levels of ability and maybe some behavioural difficulties also. The teachers in this school in Lahinch would like to provide this service but are not in a position to do so without the support of a resource teacher.

This Bill is a great disappointment. Education is a major issue in any democratic and civilised society. In Ireland, the education system has always occupied a special place in our hearts and we realise the great benefits of it. We can be proud of it because its standards are and always have been very high. Teachers work in difficult conditions, either because they do not have the staff support they want or because they work under difficult physical conditions as capital funding is not available. These are the issues we should be discussing tonight rather than a Bill which only refers to structures and lays on another administrative layer to our education system which will eat into scarce resources.

I raised the question of remedial school teachers on the Adjournment last week, as well as the capital funding needed for a number of schools, including the gaelscoil in Kilmurry and schools in Kilkee, Tuamgraney and Knockanean. There is also an immediate need for a remedial teacher to cover the six schools in East Clare, Ogonnelloe, Tuamgraney, Bodyke, Broadford, Kilbane and O'Callaghan's Mills. It is important to say that 57 of the 124 primary schools in Clare have no remedial service and the situation is one of the worst in the country.

I compliment our party spokesman on his contribution. He pointed to the very great difficulties not faced up to in the Bill. I hope the Minister will reflect very carefully on its provisions and table appropriate amendments with practical, positive implications for education.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  We have just heard another peroration on the part of a darling girl from Clare who mentioned every village and townland in that county.

Miss de Valera: Information on Síle de Valera  Zoom on Síle de Valera  Since I represent Clare why would I not?

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  One would never think a general election was just around the corner, that we were ready and in campaign mood or that, as we stand in this practically empty Chamber, dozens of our colleagues are out canvassing this evening to ensure they are returned to the 28th Dáil.

It was also extraordinary to hear such a plea for capital budgets for psychological and remedial services. If my memory serves me correctly, the Fianna Fáil Party held the Education portfolio for in the region of 47 years — a distinguished former Minister for Education is present — and did damn all to provide for remedial or psychological [1392] services or home/school liaison officers. We had to await the arrival of the Minister early in 1993 before witnessing any movement in those areas.

Miss de Valera: Information on Síle de Valera  Zoom on Síle de Valera  That is not true. That is not what the record shows.

Mr. Broughan: Information on Thomas P. Broughan  Zoom on Thomas P. Broughan  It is incredibly embarrassing to have to listen to this type of contribution by a member of a party which dominated the Department of Education for 50 of our 75 years of independence. The vicious cutbacks implemented between 1989 and 1992 by the infamous Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Coalition brought capital spending on primary and secondary education to a virtual halt over those three bitter, barren years. It required the present Minister to begin to deal with the horrendously bad conditions in primary and some secondary schools. I am proud to have been associated with schools such as St. David's CBS, St. Aidan's CBS and Pobail Scoil Neasáin in Baldoyle in my constituency where, at long last, requisite resources have begun to be invested which Fianna Fáil failed to do over their long and at times very barren tenure.

As a former teacher it gives me great pleasure to welcome this Bill and contribute to this debate. From my teaching experience I am only too well aware of the confusion caused by the lack of guiding legislation in the education sector since independence. I am only too aware of the frustration of parents and teachers, and on occasion patrons, who have felt totally excluded from the decision making process from time to time.

This is an historic Bill. It is remarkable that, since this State became independent, with the exception of the Vocational Education Act of 1930, this is the only Bill whose provisions are far-reaching and re-organisational, specifying appropriate standards to be complied with. We should salute the Minister on its introduction, following very lengthy consultations. Its publication and presentation are timely.

Education always has been important, contributing to the welfare and self-development of all our citizens. It is the primary factor in determining the success of one's career, the prevailing rule of thumb always being that the better one's education the better will be one's job. Many people contend that a significant proportion of the credit for our outstanding economic progress in recent years must be attributed to the wonderful work and outstanding achievement of our primary and secondary teachers who, over the past 30 years, have modernised the schools curricula, often working in extremely difficult conditions, sometimes with primary classes comprising anything from 36 to 40 or 50, if not more, pupils.

The overall position in education is rapidly changing and its importance throughout one's lifetime becoming ever more important. The days when one ceased formal education at the age of 18 or in the early 20s — if one was fortunate enough to have been able to attend a third level [1393] institution in the first place — are fast disappearing. Many more teenagers are attending third level colleges than ever before and per capita, we have one of the highest rates of third level educational attendance within Europe. Increasingly young adults are being joined by older, mature adults seeking to catch up on an education they may not have had an opportunity of acquiring at an earlier age. I ask the Minister to liaise with groups representing mature third level students who have been making a strong case for some help with the burden of their fees. It was this Government that abolished third level undergraduate fees. It has to be remembered that a significant number of older people did not have the chance of continuing to third level. They are now availing of that opportunity and are of the strong opinion they are being penalised, something all parties in this House must address.

If technology continues to develop at its current pace we shall all require to be re-educated and retrained throughout our careers. While education needs to be recognised as a social service, it is also important that its role in economic advancement be clearly recognised. Success in this field has become the yardstick by which the level of one's skill are judged. Ability to acquire new skills and expertise represents a significant indicator of how much, how often and how long one will work.

This has come as a body blow to the advocates of the new right economics of the 1980s. Economic success is no longer about greed but more about investment, particularly in people. I do not agree with much of the economic activity with which the present British Conservative Government has been associated. Nonetheless it is interesting to note that its education and employment ministries are combined within one super ministry. While that may not represent the correct way forward it demonstrates, belatedly, how discredited Conservative politicians under their Prime Minister, Mr. John Major, have begun to recognise the key problems of their education system which, at second and third levels, has not yielded sufficient numbers of quality graduates for the advancement of the British economy. The British are now attempting to redress that deficiency. We have always been somewhat wiser in that respect.

I read in the press earlier this week of the intention of the Progressive Democrats, if that party ever returns to Government, to repeal this Bill, if enacted. It appears that party would prefer to see money spent within the education system, directly on schools. When that party was in Government four years ago, funds within the education system were more conspicuous by their absence and there was a long catalogue of cuts which disfigured education services throughout that unhappy period. I hope Deputy Séamus Brennan and his colleagues will not travel down that Progressive Democrats road following the general election. I hope the electorate will not give the Progressive Democrats the kind of support [1394] which would enable that party to exercise any influence on any future Government. Of course, the Progressive Democrats Party would prefer the present position to continue, under which all regulations and resources are dispensed centrally by the Department of Education. They would probably feel better placed to withstand parents' pressure for investment in the education system than under the system proposed in this Bill when, for the first time, parents will be allowed a significant input in determining education policy.

The parents understand the importance of education in determining their children's future even if the Progressive Democrats do not.

One of the significant features of this Bill is that for the first time the role of parents, the key primary educators, is finally given a statutory basis in that they will have a right to be present on the local education boards. Many would say the guilty party in this area is Fianna Fáil. Since 1932 when it first won election in the State Fianna Fáil has occupied the Department of Education for more than 45 years and for all its so called radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s the system it inherited from the British was left virtually unaltered. Fianna Fáil should not oppose this Bill. Given its record over the decades, it should hang its head in shame.

There are a number of important areas in the Bill. The most significant aspect is that for the first time it will put the education system on a statutory footing. It means the rights and responsibilities of all the key actors in the education system will be recognised — school staff, 40,000 teachers and principals. My colleague, Deputy McGrath, referred to the problems which may arise in relation to the workload of the principal. One of the benefits during the past four or five years is the development of a responsible middle management system in our primary and second level schools. There were criticisms of the recent agreement between the INTO, the Minister and the Government. That agreement ultimately referred to recognition of the development of the middle management system under which the senior cadre of teachers in each school will assume a great deal of the burden which principals and the vice principals carried alone. The Bill has taken this a stage further by formally recognising that. Everyone in my profession would welcome this development which puts the middle management system on a statutory basis.

I support Deputy de Valera's call for a teaching council and recognition of a professional body to ensure the highest standards continue to be the hallmark of Irish teachers at each level.

I welcome the establishment of the regional education boards. Most people would consider the various health boards, tourism boards and many other areas where there is regional development have operated well. Under the Eastern Health Board, two or three counties together can have a population resource which can make a difference in the provision of key resources. I [1395] do not follow this argument. In this regard the Fianna Fáil party, Deputy Brennan in particular, is hiding behind the Labour Party.

The opposition to the establishment of the boards which will enhance the quality of education by bringing it closer to the regions it serves is perplexing. As a Dublin Deputy I have been perplexed by the position adopted by Fianna Fáil. On a fortnightly basis it bemoans the treatment of this or that region at the hands of the Government as if the problems suffered by those regions had only begun in 1995. Why is it so opposed to a Bill which will devolve responsibility for education on those regions? Will it propose to end the Civil Service decentralisation programme and, if so, we will be happy to retain the half of the Civil Service which we still have in Dublin — the area of highest unemployment in the State?

The underlying thrust of the Bill is recognition of our diverse education system, as one based on partnership and its success in the past. Our recent economic success, and perhaps our success going back to the mid-1960s, has resulted from the education system. The Minister must be commended for insisting on the embodiment of this principle of partnership in our education system. On entering office the Minister established the national education convention following wide-ranging consultation, such as had never been seen in the history of Irish education; published a White Paper — I pay tribute to Deputy Seamus Brennan who published the previous Green Paper — and embarked upon an extensive consultation process. This is representative of the qualities brought to Government by the Minister and the Labour Party.

Deputy Martin suggested the Bill has fallen foul of the denominational sectors. He failed to point out that CORI and other religious bodies have welcomed most of it. For instance, they welcome the flexibility the regional boards will give the system to promote equality, attempt to pursue the issue of education disadvantage and develop support services and many of the other positive features prominent in the Bill.

CORI welcomes the provisions which stipulate that each education board should develop an education plan. The absence of such plans in the past has been a key weakness in the system, particularly at primary level, to assess its weaknesses and strengths. Far from being a burden the necessity for plans and transparent accounting will be a further strength of the developing education sector. CORI has welcomed the Bill's attempt to ensure the principle of equality in schools' admission policy is placed at the centre of our education policy. It is a disgrace it has taken 60 years to put that provision in place.

Deputy Martin raised CORI's concern about funding for tackling disadvantage and inequality in our education system. It is tiresome to listen to this criticism from a Deputy who sits on the same front bench as Deputies McCreevy and Cullen. Deputy Cullen beamed in tonight from County [1396] Waterford. I presume he is another of our colleagues who has been out canvassing.

Until last weekend Fianna Fáil has got away with a huge amount of double speak on its plans for this country's future. This double speak, particularly on education, will be exposed in the coming weeks. Deputy Martin's passionate defence of the rights of the denominational sector is misplaced. The majority of parents wish to have their children educated in their own denomination and in their religious and cultural traditions. At the same time they do not understand the reason a large number of school buildings lie idle in the evenings when there are community uses to which they could be put. It strikes me that Fianna Fáil's opposition to the Bill is based more on currying favour with powerful interest groups rather than the needs of the public.

The comments uttered by Deputy Keogh were somewhat bizarre and extremely convoluted. She seems to be looking for a system such as that which operated in Tzarist or Soviet Russia run absolutely on individual discretion.

One of the key features which I welcome — and on which we have had lengthy discussions in the Committee of Public Accounts in recent months — is the attempt to introduce a fundamental principle of accountability throughout the education system. The budget for the sector is up to £2.5 billion.

At the Committee of Public Accounts, of which I have been a member for the past four years, we have heard some incredible sagas in recent months. We had to dissect the unedifying history of Westmeath County vocational education committee where extraordinary events took place. A member of the vocational education committee was appointed chief executive of the vocational education committee and important and significant overruns occurred in expenditures. In Kilkenny vocational education committee similar problems emerged on a smaller scale. Under the Comptroller and Auditor General Act, 1994 we have the power to ensure the money this House allocates for our children at primary and secondary level will go to the children for whom it is intended, and to no other purpose. That is the least our children can expect. Unfortunately, the evidence which has been placed before the Committee of Public Accounts about a number of our education institutions would indicate that has not always been the case. I strongly welcome the insertion in this Bill of the principle of absolute accountability for State moneys for our children and teachers, and that they will be accountable to this House.

I commend the Bill to the House. I congratulate the Minister and look forward to the speedy passage of this legislation through the House.

Mr. S. Brennan: Information on Seamus Brennan  Zoom on Seamus Brennan  I agree with Deputy Broughan that this Bill is historic. It is the result of some ten years of gestation and work by five or six Ministers for Education, as well as many fine people in our education establishments, and [1397] officials in the Department of Education and elsewhere in our public service. The Bill is the product of much consultation over a long period. I welcome the fact that it is before the Dáil and the Minister is to be thanked for that. However, more than one third of the Bill deals with the issue of regional boards. There has been a considerable shift from the original Green Paper, produced in 1992, and the Minister's current policy.

Mr. Creed: Information on Michael Creed  Zoom on Michael Creed  Devolution.

Mr. S. Brennan: Information on Seamus Brennan  Zoom on Seamus Brennan  As Minister for Education at the time, I introduced that Green Paper and specifically set my face against regional boards. While all my colleagues may not agree, I set my face against any formal intermediate structure. The Minister changed that and inserted specific proposals in the White Paper and the legislation. It is worth debating the substantial difference between the policy of my party, which is opposed to the regional boards, and that of the Government. The issue is worthy of serious debate with a little less heat and a bit more light.

In October 1992, I told the Seanad that I deliberately had not included an intermediate structure in the Green Paper because I felt the case for such a structure had to be made. I also said that before I would embark on establishing any regional or county educational structure I needed to be convinced that within a couple of years somebody would not take the view it was a pity all that money was not going into educating children in schools. I also said that money should not be tied up in bureaucracy and administration, but should go into the schools where it was desperately required.

I concluded that address to the Seanad by pointing out that any changes that are necessary should be made for the sake of school children. The changes should not be made to keep either politicians or teachers busy, or to satisfy local authorities or other interest groups in education. We have had too much politics in education, which is about delivering a service to the pupils of the country. It is not about keeping teachers, administrators, bureaucrats or elected officials happy.

We can sometimes lose sight of what education is about. Occasionally when one is trying to make policy in a sea of options — and all of us in this House experienced that feeling from time to time — it is critically important to have a guiding star to go by. There really is only one guiding star in education and that is to deliver quality service to the maximum number of children in the State. Anything that gets in the way of that has no place in our system. That is why I made those remarks in the Seanad in October 1992 and I have helped to convince my party that it is still a good policy. That is why I am saying now that we should not have regional education boards because they will get in the way of that clear objective. They are there to fiddle around with the education system, [1398] to tinker with it and to establish a mosaic of educational bureaucracy which will turn into an absolute nightmare.

While it may be useless to do so, I would like to ask the Minister for Education, even at this late stage, to abandon these regional education boards. They will not meet the guiding principle of delivering quality service to our children. The Minister appears to have gone both ways on these regional education boards. On the one hand she says the boards are designed to help education and to have services devolved to them, but then she holds back ministerial control to herself. Ministerial sanction is to be required for the purchase, sale or lease of any land or premises by the new board. The Minister will also retain the power to reject or amend the operational plan which is to be submitted to each educational board.

One can imagine the mess with thousands of schools submitting operational plans to the boards who would then have to prepare plans for the Department. They would ring up every day and wonder when sanction would be given for their operational plans, including the disposal of property and so on.

A bureaucratic jungle is now being established. This is a small country which has the capacity to run its education system without building this layer of ten gigantic regional boards. They will cost a fortune and will come between pupils and policy makers. We will all spend our days administering the process rather than delivering the service directly to children in the education system.

Even the school board of management, it seems, will not have a school policy function because that also has to be checked with the regional board. From what I can see, the school boards would appear to have less autonomy and freedom of manoeurve than they currently enjoy. I am not sure where the Minister gives effect to her claim that this is devolution of authority and responsibility.

I support the statutory recognition given to the rights of parents. I also support the provisions in the Bill which seek to establish our educational establishments on a statutory footing. That needed to be done and it is in order, but these regional boards which take up one third of the Bill are a totally wrong and inappropriate response to the future needs of the education system. They will be ineffective in influencing the strategic policy of developing Irish education. They will be extremely bureaucratic and we take the view that, in office, we will abolish these boards. I strongly advocate that course of action to whoever holds office after the next general election. I passionately believe that the boards are going in the wrong direction. They just build a scaffolding which is totally unnecessary in this day and age. If the Minister wants to devolve to lower levels of authority she should devolve to the school board itself. In fairness, the Minister is being quite tough about putting in school boards, so why not give them the authority to deal with [1399] some of the issues which the regional boards are now being asked to do? Is it that we do not trust the school boards to deal with these matters?

A strong board of management in a school should be underpinned with legislation, which we are doing. Following that a school board can deal with many of the issues which are given to the regional boards. We have consistently said on this side of the House that any available funds in education have to go to the classrooms not into the structures themselves, particularly into fancy bureaucratic structures like those proposed. Regional boards are unnecessary. Despite repeated questioning over many weeks, Members on this side of the House have been unable to establish the estimated costs of the boards. It is unfair to ask the House to pass legislation without putting a price tag on it. This is unprecedented as we are usually given some indication of the cost of legislation. However, on this occasion we have not been told the first year costs or the estimated costs over the next five or ten years. I have some experience of the Department of Education and that information is available to the able people who work in it. No one in the Departments of Education or Finance agreed to the establishment of ten regional boards without asking the estimated costs, the staffing required, the salary of the chief executive and their role in terms of property, management etc. Unfortunately we cannot get the answers to these questions in the House. This is regrettable as this information would have enabled us to debate the real value of these boards.

The regional boards will act as a smokescreen and allow future Ministers for Education to say what is already said about semi-State companies. The type of reply Deputies will receive from future Ministers for Education will be: “I cannot deal with that issue because it is a matter for the western or southern regional board”.

Mr. Creed: Information on Michael Creed  Zoom on Michael Creed  Would the Deputy abolish the health boards?

Mr. S. Brennan: Information on Seamus Brennan  Zoom on Seamus Brennan  I would be delighted to discuss the health boards with the Deputy.

Mr. Creed: Information on Michael Creed  Zoom on Michael Creed  The principle is the same.

Mr. S. Brennan: Information on Seamus Brennan  Zoom on Seamus Brennan  Yes, but would the Deputy set them up again?

Mr. Creed: Information on Michael Creed  Zoom on Michael Creed  Yes.

Mr. S. Brennan: Information on Seamus Brennan  Zoom on Seamus Brennan  If we were to debate the health boards I would refer to the millions of pounds spent on them and the need to give hospital boards more autonomy. I am criticising the establishment of regional boards without giving any indication of the costs involved. The Departments of Education and Finance would not dream of agreeing to the establishment of these boards without knowing the costs over the next four or five years. The Departments have that information [1400] but it is being withheld from this House. I welcome many of the provisions but, as the Minister is aware, I first voiced my opposition to the introduction of intermediate structures in the area of education five or six years ago. I am still opposed to them not because the Minister thought of them but rather because they are fundamentally wrong in terms of education and go in the wrong direction.

Dr. John Coulahan, for whom I have enormous respect and who was very good to me while I was in the Department, said in a recent article that if the regional education boards were to fulfil the functions being assigned to them they would be and should be expensive. Dr. Coulahan is professor of education at St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, and is a regular adviser to the Department of Education. The Minister will not tell us how expensive the boards will be and they are being set up because it seems like a good idea. This proposal has not been properly thought through. Instead of setting up these boards the maximum amount of responsibility should be devolved to schools. If one looks at the responsibilities being given to the regional boards one will see that it would be easy to devolve them to schools.

The education boards will be required to submit costed operational programmes. Following the submission of these programmes to the Department there will be a press conference at which the chief executives of these glossy public relations boards will tell us about their plans for the future. I am not sure what this has to do with education and I suspect it has more to do with the career building of these chief executives who will want to be like semi-State executives and have the usual perks that go with that office.

I differ from my colleagues on this side of the House in one or two respects. For example, I do not believe elected local officials should play a prominent role in the policy making aspects of education. Other countries have gone down this road but it is not one we should go down. I have no doubt that local officials will play a strong role on regional boards. However, education is the business of parents, teachers and pupils, not of local or national politicians.

I support the establishment of a unified agency to be known as the Inspectorate. This body should be given teeth and made independent so that it can comment on the operation of the Department of Education and the Minister's policies. If the Inspectorate is not independent then this initiative, which I support, will not be worth much.

I have participated in the debate not to make political points but rather to support this historic legislation which is the culmination of ten years' work; the establishment of the system on a statutory basis; the appointment of independent inspectorates and the introduction of greater accountability in the system. However, I am trenchantly opposed to the establishment of regional education boards. I have studied the [1401] issue carefully and believe school boards could carry out these functions.

Some functions should be taken out of the Department of Education, which should be engaged in policy, not operations. Its function is to set and monitor policy, set standards, allocate resources, ensure management takes place and target areas of speciality. It should not be involved in fixing school gates or dealing with minor issues. Much of the work of the Department of Education is devoted to the payment of teachers' salaries. If one does not have a philosophical hang-up about the payment of teachers' wages by a Department, they could be administered in the first instance by a payments agency which is at arms length from the Department. The Minister administers billions of pounds worth of property, if one includes every educational establishment. This work could be carried out by an agency which specialises in property. The psychology services could be undertaken by an outside company, while special education could be dealt with by a specialist unit.

I agree with the Minister wanting to take the clutter out of the Department to allow it concentrate on policy, but handing over this responsibility to regional boards will double the clutter, not remove it. To remove the clutter and allow the Department focus on policy, responsibility for areas such as payroll, property, etc., should be given to specialised agencies who can operate them on a national basis if necessary in a commercial way. School boards should be given real power to run their schools. Boards of management are well able to run their schools within the parameters laid down by the Department of Education. They do not need Big Daddy looking over their shoulder in the form of local representatives and political appointees of all sorts. If that is done we will have real devolution, not the fictional devolution offered in the Bill.

Mr. Creed: Information on Michael Creed  Zoom on Michael Creed  I welcome the opportunity to make a brief contribution to the debate. I compliment the Government in general and the Minister for Education in particular on bringing the Bill to fruition after many years of consultation. The Bill, which is the result of a painstaking consultative process, has received a broad welcome from the partners in education including parents, teachers, Department officials, religious patrons and owners of schools. I do not understand the Opposition's attitude to it. It has latched on to the question of regional education boards, the only reasonable sound bite in terms of media opposition to the proposed changes.

It must be remembered the Bill is the first attempt, excluding the 1930 vocational education committee Act, to establish a statutory framework for primary and second level education. My one criticism of the Bill is that, in establishing the regional education boards, it did not clean the slate completely by abolishing the vocational education committees. With some notable exceptions, including the City of Dublin vocational [1402] education committee and Cork County vocational education committee, which are widely recognised as being successful, vocational education committees have not wrapped themselves in glory during their existence. The Minister had an ideal opportunity to put in place a new administrative framework for the democratisation of education.

I am somewhat confused by the Fianna Fáil opposition to the Bill because on the one hand we have had a trenchant defence of the vocational education committee system and disdain for the meagre rationalisation the Minister is effecting, which is long overdue. The argument was put forward that county, not regional, education boards should be established. We also had the position as enunciated by the previous speaker and the spokesperson earlier that regional education boards will be abolished if Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats return to Government.

What are vocational education committees if not regional education boards under another name dealing with a specific sector in the education field? In establishing regional education boards we are putting together a critical mass of schools at primary and secondary level which will have sufficient numbers and resources to make them significant players in terms of education policy. This is the first attempt in the closing years of the 20th century to establish a statutory framework for primary and secondary education that outlines the roles, rights and responsibilities of all the players. It is vitally important that these legislative provisions are put in place.

I welcome the recognition in the White Paper of the role of religious in education and the whole question of ethos. It is a logical progression, in terms of the democratic constitution of regional education boards, that ethos is enshrined and protected by virtue of the composition of each of the regional education boards. Parents who wish to have their children educated under the ethos of a particular religious tradition will ensure that it is recognised, as will teachers and patrons.

There has been some criticism from the religious that the Bill does not enshrine the principles recognised in the White Paper, but the democratising of education through the regional education boards will safeguard the principle of ethos in education for the future. That is important.

I am disappointed the Minister did not go the extra mile with regard to the vocational education committees because we will have a situation which has an analogy with the health services in terms of the health boards and the voluntary hospitals. Regional education boards will exist side by side with vocational education committees. It is not too late for the Minister to reconsider that. I know it will open a Pandora's box and there will be a great deal of criticism, but I suggest the capacity to command media attention is not directly related to the concern of the people most affected by the Bill, namely, the pupils. Anybody who has been a member of a health [1403] board will be aware of the uneasy relationship that exists between the voluntary hospital sector and the health boards.

The regional education boards bring a long overdue element of democratisation to education. There will also be transparency in terms of the allocation of resources. In the publication of education plans there will be an onus on regional education boards, particularly in the context of the effects of demographic trends, to take tough decisions in the not too distant future as that trend manifests itself through the education system.

There may come a time when regional education boards will have to make strategic decisions about the provision of services in their own areas. It is important to empower people who are representatives of those who provide the education service and those who receive it. They must be directly involved in making decisions for their own regions. In terms of transparency in allocating resources, disadvantaged and marginalised areas of education such as special and remedial education will have a far greater chance of getting their share of resources under the regional education boards than they have under the competitive forces currently at play in terms of the distribution of resources by the Department of Education. Services such as remedial and special education have for too long been the Cinderella of the education services.

I acknowledge what has been achieved in these areas in the past few years. From a situation where very few schools had access to remedial teachers, 80 per cent of schools or pupils — I am not sure which — now have remedial education services. However, a significant number of small schools still do not have that resource. The democratisation that will follow the establishment of regional education boards will make it easier to target resources at these areas in an effective manner.

The composition of the boards is very important. The cost of regional education boards has been identified as a reason for abandoning the idea. I received some documentation recently expressing outrage at the cost of regional education board meetings. Based on a model somewhat like the South Eastern Health Board, it could run to £3,000 or £4,000. For 12 board meetings a year, that is peanuts in terms of the cost of giving the consumers of education a say in how education services in their area are delivered. There will be other costs. The Opposition has concentrated excessively on the cost of the regional education boards. However, there will be an element of reducing costs to the Department of Education with the transfer of resources, decision making and personnel from a highly centralised Department to regional education boards. The Department is excessively bureaucratic, notwithstanding the fact that it has been decentralised to Tullamore and Athlone. It is difficult to see any transparency in the various steps [1404] involved in making decisions on the education process.

I accept that it is difficult to put an exact cost on the regional education boards. There is a cost, and it is worth bearing, but there will be a simultaneous reduction in costs in terms of the ongoing operation of the Department of Education itself. The introduction of the boards will free up the Department to make broad policy decisions rather than being involved in day-to-day questions of whether a school in Donegal should have a one classroom extension or a multipurpose room built on. I do not expect the Minister to be as authoritative as I, as a local Deputy, would be about a school in my constituency or one in Donegal. That would be an unfair burden to lay on the Minister. We should really be demanding that the Minister apply herself in a diligent fashion to the broad policy areas and leave the day-to-day operations of education policy at a level where they are best dealt with. The Minister has done a reasonable job in trying to do both to date. I look forward, with the establishment of regional education boards, to more emphasis on policy by the Department.

In terms of the establishment of regional education boards, I am particularly interested in the role of the Irish language. That will be interesting, given the democratic constitution of regional education boards. There are glaring anomalies in the distribution of resources in the context of State policy on promoting the Irish language. Recently in the Muskerry Gaeltacht in my constituency a primary school in Ballingeary lost a teacher. That school is de facto a gaelscoil, but it also has to operate through the medium of English for pupils who are not fluent in Irish. However, the resources available to that school, which operates through the medium of Irish for 99 per cent of the time, are less than the resources available to gaelscoileanna. It will be interesting to see how parents and teachers react to that and how regional education boards will proceed in promoting the Irish language.

Another issue that has been raised in the context of the Irish language is the question of establishing a special education board for Gaeltacht areas. I am not convinced that this should be done. One of the advantages of regional education boards is that they will bring decision making close to the people. If an education board for Gaeltacht areas were to be established, it would probably be established in Galway. A school in the Muskerry Gaeltacht would, therefore, be disadvantaged by not having access to the decision making process if, for example, it had to ring a board in Galway on a Monday morning to request a temporary teacher or go cap in hand as we do at the moment to the Department of Education to get an extension to the primary or secondary school. The schools in the Muskerry Gaeltacht have been well served by the vocational education committee system. A continuation of that principle through the establishment of the regional education boards would [1405] serve local schools better than a board which was geographically far removed from them.

Much has been said about the “missing chapter” in the Bill — the allocation of resources. It is native in the extreme to expect the Minister for Education to commit resources by virtue of this legislation for education services — she could not legally do that because she would be superseding the budgetary procedures if she attempted to do so. In the past few years increasing resources have been available to the Department of Education and there have been many improvements during that period. However, there are still shortcomings in special and remedial education, the provision of caretakers and secretarial assistance. The consumers of education will never be of the opinion that we have adequate resources. This has never been the case in regard to education or in regard to any other service. There is always competition among Ministers for resources at Cabinet level. Much has been achieved during the Minister's tenure in office, and it is unfair to criticise the Bill for not legally copperfastening the provision of resources from now into the future.

I broadly welcome the Bill which provides a statutory framework within which services in the education field may be delivered in the future. Rights, responsibilities and roles are clearly outlined. Much of the criticism is for criticism's sake and is without real substance and conviction.

Cecilia Keaveney: Information on Cecilia Keaveney  Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney  I welcome the opportunity to contribute on the Education Bill. Every responsible person who has the interests of children at heart must have something to say on this Bill. The increasing significance of educational achievement for the future of our young people is evidenced on a yearly basis, with students under great pressure from parents, teachers, peer groups and so on to achieve greater qualifications and gain a measure of what society calls success, which is difficult to quantify.

In terms of the links between education and social disadvantage, the aim of any Bill in this area must be to ensure the highest quality of education service for the young of today, the adults of tomorrow. A Bill, introduced five years after the Green Paper on education, is important and must be welcomed. We must aim to address the issue of educational disadvantage. We should consider the idea of a strong local input into what is a centralised institution. We should consider education in terms of its true remit, its links with the community. We should open up the structures so that the people may play a part in decision making for themselves and their children, while remaining aware of the rights of denominational and other groups to provide education.

Our record in terms of early school leavers is not exemplary — I think Donegal is not far from the top of the list. In its report, the Conference of Religious in Ireland stated that the education system is failing to meet the needs of poor people. That warrants immediate and serious attention. [1406] As a former teacher, I am concerned about the establishment of the ten regional boards. There are many problems with regard to schools. There is need for basic repairs, adequate classroom spaces and resources not only for courses such as science and music, for which I have a preference and which greatly lack resources, but also for special needs, not to mention basic classroom materials.

The boards will constitute a new layer of bureaucracy, with the need for offices and office equipment as well as professional and administrative staff. While they will be a good source of employment not only in terms of staff but also for those who will supply the equipment, the Minister cannot argue that there will not be a substantial amount of capital involved in the establishment and running of such boards.

There is a perception that schools will rank second best to the boards in that the maintenance of a board office may take priority to a school issue. That fear is difficult to dispel when one looks at other organisations made up of more than one layer. The suggestion has been made that schools will rank third best in that funding will have to be approved by the board as well as the vocational education committee. I would like clarification on whether that will be the case. The concern is that the greater the number of bodies involved, the lower will be the amount of money for schools, where needed.

Another worrying feature is the lack of information on the cost of putting in place these boards. As with the abolition of water charges, which was debated for the past hour and half, the Government has decided that the setting up of ten regional boards is a good idea, but it cannot put a figure on what it will cost. It is wrong to implement such a proposal without first costing it. Where will the money be found for the structures, salaries and so on? That question may be posed by schools which have been refused assistance because of lack of resources. The school in Moville sought funding for amalgamation but was not successful and other schools which sought funding for extensions were told there was no funding available. There is no problem, however, in making money available for the ten regional boards.

One of the greatest educational resources is the remedial service, which is of such vital importance that it cannot be stressed enough. The Minister has heard much about that service and will hear much more about it in the future. Instead of setting up ten regional boards, the Minister should have put the resources directly into the classroom. That might be an old fashioned idea but it would have a much greater impact on students. What good is another layer of bureaucracy when, for example, in Donegal there are 74 national schools without a remedial service and 37 remedial teachers covering the remaining 104 schools?

While I welcome programmes such as Breaking the Cycle, attention must be given to the anomaly [1407] where two schools in a town, both of which are attended by children from the same family, are treated differently, with only one designated as disadvantaged. A school close to my home which is designated as disadvantaged receives no additional resources in terms of teaching. It is recognised as disadvantaged only in certain circumstances. I presume the Minister will respond by saying that the boards will be a way of bringing those issues to the attention of those involved at local level. In setting up the boards, how much money will be taken out of the system which would otherwise be provided for schools? I disagree with Deputy Creed who said that, given the number of people who would receive allowances for travel to and from meetings, based on the health board system, the cost of holding one meeting could be £2,500.

The boards will have to cover urban and rural areas and, in some cases, different counties. The proposal is to devolve power, but in reality the position will be different. Boards of management are too large. Will the Minister respond to the charge that members of those boards will work full-time, but on a voluntary basis? Will they be expected to take on a number of different roles? This is similar to the Credit Union Bill which also interfered with the voluntary aspect of society. Credit unions do not want too much outside interference. People who work on a voluntary basis do not want others undermining their positions. It should be recognised that they give freely of their time and effort.

The Minister is mentioned in almost every line of the Bill. Why is the role of the school patron being undermined and the choice of patron taken from the school? What support will be given to principals to deal with the extra workload involved in being a member of staff and middle management? Principals will obviously have to report back to the education boards. It will be difficult for a working principal to deal with such a heavy workload without proper support.

The proposal to evaluate teaching and management quality is welcome. However, it is pointless identifying a problem if resources are not available to remedy it. It is similar to the argument about remedial teachers and psychologists — if one does not label a child, one does not have to deal with the problem. We do not have an educational psychologist in Donegal. Some people do not want one appointed because they believe it would be pointless having a psychologist identify a child with a problem if there are no resources to help that child. If problems are identified resources must be put in place to deal with them.

Students should have recourse to an appeals mechanism, but the statements in this regard are rather vague. I would welcome clarification in that regard.

The Bill should not be rushed through the House. We should not create more bureaucracy. Fianna Fáil supports the provisions which will entitle parents to sit on education boards. It is [1408] important that parents are involved. If they get involved in this way they will become more interested in the education system. The Bill does not provide enough support for adult and community education. Parents should be encouraged to get involved in education by taking up courses or getting involved in boards of management. Fianna Fáil also supports the statutory recommendation of the National Parents Council. Parents have made a positive contribution to our education system over the past 20 years and more are getting involved in education in their local areas. Their contribution, which has brought the needs of children and parents to the forefront of debate, must be recognised in legislation.

Funding should be allocated for in-service training for parents on boards of management, particularly if the concept of these boards is to change substantially. It is important that parents know what is expected of them when they become members of such boards.

There are approximately 37 education psychologists, 19 of whom are based in the Dublin area. As in the case of the water charges, we do not expect equality in rural Ireland, but we always aspire to it. While the Minister talks repeatedly of her achievements in the area of remedial education, no appointments were made last year. This is currently the subject of a heated debate in Donegal. I am sure that debate will get hotter before the election.

During my teacher training course I was told the role of music was important for the development of a child's co-ordination and language. The rhythm of music helps a child identify signs and pronounce syllables. Additional resources should be provided for teaching music in schools. While it could be claimed that resources are not available for science, I do not believe a pupil could take science in the leaving certificate and not have used a Bunsen burner or carried out some type of experiment. However, a pupil could take music in the leaving certificate and not have touched an instrument.

In regard to the role of the patron, CORI stated:

The Bill's misrepresentation of the role of the patron and its failure to take account of the consultation process leading to the White paper are fundamental flaws. These flaws mean that the harmonisation of existing rights which the Bill was meant to enshrine has not been achieved. They also undermine the Bill's stated commitment to diversity of school types and they threaten the Bill's constitutionality.

Those are not positive comments. I do not want members of education boards to be taken for granted. The Bill does not outline who will sit on those boards. If they are given substantial powers their members should be trained in how to carry out their functions. What will it cost to set up the boards?

Will the Minister provide secretarial, caretaker and middle management support for school principals? [1409] We must retain the core value of our schools, their ethos should not be threatened. In that regard CORI states:

...the Bill provides for involvement by the Minister in virtually every aspect of the work of education boards and that it grants to the Minister a number of functions which are currently exercised by schools.

That is a recipe for disaster. We should not fix something if it is not broken.

The Bill fails to deal with adult community education. We should continue to recognise qualifications, especially at second level, achieved across the Border. The Minister should not forget to allocate money for recreational needs. If establishing the regional boards will cost £50 million, will we have any money left for the classroom needs which I outlined earlier?

I welcome the decision to introduce boards of management, but who will be appointed to them? I also welcome the parental input and the right of students to review a decision made against them by the board. Students who feel they have been unfairly treated do not get enough support. Given that the Minister is flush with money, she should consider Scoil Colmcille in Malin which is in great need of an extension. She should also look at schools in Moville which amalgamated in September but which await funding and at the 74 schools which seek one remedial teacher per three or four schools.

I spent three quarters of my life in a school and I would like others to spend time in an educational institution. It would be of benefit to them as it was to me. I hope the Bill will be amended to address the issue of resources. Resources should be directed at the child who is only in school for a limited time. In many instances, the school gives the child the most important direction he or she will get in life. Resources for schools should take precedence over any other spending.

Mr. Gallagher: Information on Pat Gallagher  Zoom on Pat Gallagher  (Laoighis-Offaly): I have been waiting a long time to speak on an education Bill such as this. Submissions received over recent weeks made important points, particularly in relation to suggested amendments. It is important to remind ourselves what the Bill is about. Although we have a good education system, many aspects of it need to be addressed in a rational and effective way.

It is surprising our education system is so good given that we have depended for so long on the goodwill, co-operation and hard work of those delivering the service, including teachers, parents, members of boards of management, etc. and on circular letters from the Department which have little or no statutory basis. We should make provision for the education of all children, including any child with a disability or special education needs and ensure the education system is accountable to students, their parents and the State for the education provided. This must be [1410] conducted in a spirit of partnership between schools, patrons, students, parents, staff and the State. A Bill which achieves those objectives will do much for the further development of the education system. They are ambitious objectives which those who participate in the education system deserve.

Given the long process of consultation which took place before the publication of the Green Paper, at the convention in Dublin Castle and after the publication of the White Paper, this Bill deserves the support of the House. Although it is comprehensive, it does not specify everything that will be done at the various levels of the education system. The Bill sets out good general aims and objectives and the broad brush strokes in relation to how the system should be administered. It provides a more effective way of accounting in the House and at regional level for the working of the education system.

It is ironic that the Minister has been criticised for excessive interference in the system while at the same time criticisms were made about the lack of detail. The Bill strikes the right balance as regards the responsibilities of the Minister in terms of the policy and functions of the system while giving the boards of management, regional education boards and the partners in education the freedom to make an input.

The two aspects of the Bill I most welcome are the setting up of the regional education boards and the changes made to the operation of boards of management at school level and the involvement of parents at that and national level. Members spend a large proportion of their working day in contact with the Minister or the Department by asking parliamentary questions, writing letters or making telephone calls to get windows fixed, alarm systems installed——

Ms Bhreathnach: Information on Niamh Bhreathnach  Zoom on Niamh Bhreathnach  Or a boiler house installed.

Mr. Gallagher: Information on Pat Gallagher  Zoom on Pat Gallagher  (Laoighis-Offaly):——or to get slates repaired in schools.

Miss Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  The Deputy will still have to do that.

Mr. Gallagher: Information on Pat Gallagher  Zoom on Pat Gallagher  (Laoighis-Offaly): There is no reason such detail should concern Members. The Department spends much time answering queries and dealing with schools and does not have the time or energy to concentrate on broader policy issues. I welcome any devolution of the role and functions of the Department to a lower level.

Over the past six years there has been much talk about county committees which have resurrected as a county forum or a county talking shop. I would like to think that education committees at county level would work but given the consultation in the national education convention and the criticisms made during this debate about the potential cost of regional education boards, it is clear they would not command the support of the partners in education required to make them [1411] effective. If regional boards are being criticised for being too costly, 34 or 36 county education boards would be more costly. There is an obligation on us to make these proposals work in the interests of those concerned.

I am concerned about how effective a regional board covering four counties will be in delivering services in the two counties I represent, although it will be no worse than dealing with a single institution in Dublin which is more remote than any regional education board. We must learn from the experience of the health boards and should avoid certain things. Planning and delivering services at regional level will be effective and will lead to a high level of efficiency. However, what is missing from the operation of the regional health boards is a mechanism by which communities and interest groups can be consulted. The Minister should examine before Committee Stage further elements of consultation which may be introduced at a sub-regional level to prevent the education board losing touch with those at grass roots level.

The local health committees established under health board legislation were abolished by Fianna Fáil on cost grounds. There was a view that they had become little more than talking shops. They had no input in the decision-making process in health boards.

Debate adjourned.


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