Wednesday, 24 May 2000
Dáil Eireann Debate
In page 5, lines 12 and 13, to delete “THE NATIONAL EDUCATIONAL WELFARE BOARD” and substitute “A BODY, TO BE KNOWN AS THE NATIONAL EDUCATIONAL WELFARE BOARD OR, IN THE IRISH LANGUAGE, AN BORD NÁISIÚNTA LEASA OIDEACHAIS”.
This amendment is proposed in response to discussions on Committee Stage. I note some differ ence in the Irish name as proposed in my amendment and amendment No. 2 in the name of Deputy Michael D. Higgins, but I am assured by the translation service in Leinster House that the version I have tabled is correct.
Mr. M. Higgins: This amendment is in line with the discussion on Committee Stage, the main thrust of which was that absenteeism is more associated with industrial or labour practices than with educational or school attendance. I welcome the change conceded by the Minister.
This group of amendments concerns the Minister's duty in respect of the commencement of the Bill when enacted and ensures the Act will be commenced within two years and that the Minister must keep the Houses informed of progress. The amendments go somewhat further than amendment No. 5 in the name of Deputy Richard Bruton. However, I do not propose to accept amendment No. 7. The issue of resources is one which the House has ample opportunity to discuss during the debate on the Estimates and it is not appropriate to further deal with the issue during the process of the commencement of the Act.
Mr. R. Bruton: While I welcome the Minister's move to require that the whole Act comes into operation within two years, he is less than generous in establishing that we will have a report only every second year, as proposed by amendment No. 15. I do not see the rationale for reporting every second year when annual reporting is the standard basis for accounting in every other area of policy.
Amendment No. 7 goes to the heart of the Bill as everyone recognises there is a serious problem  with absenteeism. Reports in last week's newspapers indicated that absenteeism in Ireland is double that of most European countries. Conservative estimates put the figure at 15,000 children at primary level who are regularly absent over and above an acceptable standard and another 13,000 children who are regularly absent at secondary level. We are talking about a Bill which will deal, potentially, with up to 28,000 children.
This Bill is being enacted without outlining its resource implications and how we will man the board. We are moving from a position where there are education welfare officers in a few urban areas, and only part of the greater Dublin urban area, to one in which we are proposing national coverage for an education welfare service. However, there is no signal as to the resource implications of this development. This is particularly the case regarding schools which will have to carry much of the new formal requirements of reporting but also the requirement to develop and implement a policy for effective school attendance. This will require significant change in the way schools do business.The Minister is short-changing us by attempting to bring in this on the nod without explaining in a systematic way the implications for schools and other bodies which will implement the Bill. All the Minister said is that £250,000 will be provided this year, £1 million next year and a further £2 million in a couple of years. However, as we know, that is only a drop in the ocean in comparison to the needs of 28,000 pupils. There is a need for a firm statement in relation to how the Bill will be implemented and how an effective education welfare service will reduce the serious problems in relation to absenteeism, which also leads to the exceptionally high problems regarding early school leaving and literacy as shown in numerous surveys.
Dr. Woods: Regarding the Deputy's concerns about the years, the Minister will, in effect, report annually. The provision states “The Minister shall, as soon as may be after the end of each of the 2 years . . .” This is the way the parliamentary draftsman phrased it. The Minister will report in each of the two years. After two years, there will be full annual reports in any event involving the board so the Deputy's point is covered. That may not appear to be the case in terms of the wording of the provision, but it states the Minister shall “.after the end of each of the 2 years immediately following the passing of the Act, prepare a report . . .”.
Dr. Woods: No, that is incorrect. The Deputy can take my word for it that it is annual. The matter was discussed with the parliamentary draftsman and that was how he said it should be  worded. I assure the Deputy there will be reports each year.
There will be many general requirements for implementing the Bill and the Government is committed to this area. It has provided resources to ensure there is a major drive in this area. This will be a major policy plank in tackling the problems to which Deputy Bruton referred. It is a serious problem and for the first time resources are being provided to tackle it in a major way through the board and immediately following the passage of the Bill.
Mr. R. Bruton: Regarding amendment No. 7, I categorically do not accept the Minister's assurances. The record speaks for itself. The School Attendance Act was introduced in 1926 but successive Governments allowed it to fall into disuse. There was no commitment in this area. The track record is one of the Department of Education and Science failing to implement its obligations under Acts. I am not reassured that resources will be available.
The precise number of new education welfare officers or how schools will be assisted in undertaking their new responsibilities was not made clear on Second or Committee Stages. It has not been made clear how schools can develop effective school attendance policies which would value children who have abandoned school. It is not that they have dropped out, rather that many of them find school has nothing to offer them. We will seriously undersell ourselves if we allow the Bill to pass without the issues raised in amendment No. 7 being properly assessed by the Department. This assessment should be laid before the House so Members can be satisfied that we are not only engaged in an exercise of rubber stamping as, unfortunately, the legislators in the 1920s were engaged.
Dr. Woods: The main objective is to get it up and running on a proper footing and that is my plan. I have no doubt that is also the Government's plan and that it will support it. It should not be compared to the situation in the past. It is a completely new approach which will be resourced and funded.
“(3) Before making an order or orders under subsection (2) the Minister shall lay before each House of the Oireachtas an assessment of the resource implications of the purposes or provisions involved for the Board, for schools and any other person or body involved together with an appraisal of options for providing the said resource.”.
I do not agree with Deputy Bruton's amendment No. 10 which would have the effect of removing the requirement that children complete three years post primary education before they leave the formal education system. The evidence of association between disadvantage and poor education is well established. We must have a more demanding statutory scheme to ensure that children remain in education for a longer period. It should be borne in mind that the Bill provides for a variety of measures. It does not necessarily involve a child remaining on in a school setting  as such. A wide range of education and training options is available.
Mr. R. Bruton: My amendment is poorly drafted. My query is, what provision does the Minister intend to make for a pupil who has not reached the age of 16 but has completed three years of post primary education if he or she decides to drop out once he or she reaches the age of 16? For example, if a child aged fifteen and a half decides to leave school and move onto something else, the Minister is insisting that he or she continues in education for another six or nine months. However, it is not clear what programme will be offered by the Department for the benefit of that child. We do not want to create a vehicle which becomes an obstacle to someone who has made a good decision from their point of view to move onto something else. Will the Minister make provision for short module courses which would be attuned to the needs of a person who is almost 16, has completed the junior cycle and has decided not to continue in school?
Dr. Woods: The options include apprenticeships or alternative training. The other provisions of the Bill would also come into play. For example, section 13(19) provides for such a situation. This section does not apply to a child being educated in a school outside the State or a child participating in a programme of education, training, instruction or work experience prescribed by the Minister.
Mr. R. Bruton: Is it the Minister's intention to prescribe a set of courses which will be funded for people who are in their fifteenth year, who have completed the junior cycle and who will be able to participate? Is it intended to develop such modules?
Mr. M. Higgins: I wish to clarify something. My interpretation may be completely wrong but, as regards the Minister's amendment where he specifies 18 years, where does that leave someone with special needs who would not have a mental age of 18 although they would be older than 18 according to their birth certificate? Does such a person fall beyond the range of the legislation by the use of the term “18 years“?
Dr. Woods: They would be covered by the Education Act which requires the Minister to provide education suitable to the needs of the people concerned. That would apply to people with disabilities or special needs.
Mr. M. Higgins: If the Minister is confident that it is dealt with under the Education Act, so be it. However, the Minister and his Department should be aware that this has been the subject of court cases in terms of both when an obligation  ceases and where it lies. If the amendment is consistent with the Education Act, does it not require specification in the text?
Dr. Woods: The Government has given a commitment in the statement of 1998 which is being implemented now and which is being extended to cover people with special needs to give them the support they need. We have discussed this commitment previously and it would apply in this case.
The Minister's predecessor, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, indicated to me that he would consider this amendment for Report Stage. It takes into account the Eastern Regional Health Authority structures. As I understand it, area health boards are not health boards for the purposes of the 1970 Act. The previous Minister stated in the Seanad that the parliamentary draftsman thought it unnecessary. However, the Comhairle Bill, 1999, which was published by the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, defined health board along the lines of my amendment No. 11. I recommend the amendment to the Minister.
Dr. Woods: We have consulted further with the parliamentary draftsman about this amendment and I am informed it is unnecessary. The meaning of the amendment is incorporated in the definition as drafted. We went back and checked it further.
Mr. M. Higgins: How will I handle such freedom? The Minister in his reply quoted the parliamentary draftsman but he did not address the inconsistency between the draftspersons advising on the Comhairle Bill and those advising on this Bill. If the advice is correct for this legislation, one must assume that a significant sea change took place in the intellectual formation of the draftsman's office when he was informing the Comhairle Bill.
Area health boards are not health boards for the purposes of the 1970 Act. I remember from when I was a member of a health board that they are set up without the same statutory mandate as the health board proper. The decisions of an area health board must be referred to the board in total. All this has come about with the proposed Eastern Regional Health Authority structures. I am not convinced by the clear line being taken because the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs chose to use a definition similar to the one I propose. I will not waste the time of the House on this, but I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that the two uses in Bills from another Department and his Department are inconsistent.
If the Minister will bear with me for again referring to his predecessor, I understood him to suggest in previous discussions on the Bill that he would consider this amendment for Report Stage. There is a technical error in the provision for regulations. The Bill envisages that regulations may be made but no section gives the power to make regulations. The Bill states that such implementation regulations may happen, but the specification of the power to formulate and initiate the regulations is not included. Therefore, this amendment improves the Bill and makes it clear.
Dr. Woods: I understand the Deputy's amendment to mean that it will require all regulations to be made under the Bill to be made under  section 4. I have no objection to that in principle but the Bill, as drafted, already provides for this approach and I am assured by the parliamentary draftsman that that is the case. We went back to the draftsman, as requested, and discussed this point and I am assured it covers it. The Bill as drafted provides that anything to be prescribed by the Minister under the Bill will be done through regulations made under section 4. In other words, the Minister cannot, under the Bill as drafted, make regulations outside section 4. In these circumstances, the Deputy's amendments are unnecessary. The Bill as drafted already covers the point with which the Deputy is concerned.
Mr. M. Higgins: I am not in a position to contradict the parliamentary draftsman but I disagree with the Minister. The legislation is weaker for not expliciting referring to the power to make regulations, although it states that regulations may be made. It is at a remove from a specifying power in the legislation. The Bill is technical and it is not worth dividing on, but I place on the record my dissatisfaction with it.
The Bill recognises and defines a recognised school and sets out its obligations, such as maintaining records, developing attendance strategies and responding to the obligations and needs of education welfare as we define it. However, it fails to recognise recognised alternative providers. Many schemes are set up for young people by youth agencies, FÁS and other community organisations which are not recognised schools. Many institutions provide support, training and education for young people, but they are not recognised schools. We should include them in the Bill. Attendance strategies should be developed by such institutions and we should adopt the same inspection and reporting approach to them.
The Bill recognises that some children are not suited to recognised schools and they will only thrive in other environments, for which it makes provision. However, certain policies should be  developed in those environments and attendance strategies are an important dimension of that. The Educational Welfare Board should be able to follow the progress of a child, even if that child leaves the recognised school structure and moves into unrecognised institutions which are playing a valuable role and have become for many children the only way to develop skills. Many young people who would normally drop out of school are encouraged by the way they are treated outside the recognised school setting. They are recognised as individuals and treated on a par with others.
It would be remiss of us to proceed with a Bill which does not recognise such institutions and outline their obligations and the policies they can pursue. If the Educational Welfare Board is to fulfil its mandate, it will need to stretch its remit to include institutions other than recognised schools. This amendment seeks to include that in the definition of the Bill. I have tabled further amendments to develop obligations and roles for these institutions.
Dr. Woods: The State does not have a constitutional role where a parent seeks to educate their child outside the recognised school system, except to ensure the child receives a minimum education. The board must work out what that is and how to deal with it. That is the thrust of the Bill in this area. Accordingly, it is not appropriate that the board should recognise certain providers of education and not others. The board will validate the claims of parents to provide their children with a minimum education and shall take action where this does not occur, but it will have no further role. As regards other courses, such as Youthreach, these are regulated and will continue to be so.
Mr. R. Bruton: What is the point in introducing a Bill to regulate the way in which we develop an education welfare service for children and then stating that if they stray outside the system and are educated by Youthreach the education welfare service will abandon them because it is now a matter for their parents and the service has no further interest other than to ensure they get a minimum education? There is no point in saying there is no need to develop school attendance strategies. We want to help young people with difficulties to develop and to plan a career structure for them.
We should not state that because they are outside the recognised school structure we no longer have an interest in them, want to offer support or expect institutions to develop the type of policies which will support them. I do not see the sense of going to the trouble of setting up a board with expertise and then putting an artificial fence  around it so that if the child strays into Youthreach, that is the end of our role. That is the type of pigeon-holing which has caused difficulties in education. We should provide the same support services to the child which are linked to the child's needs regardless of where they stray in the system.
Dr. Woods: I accept that in so far as I can. That is why I mentioned home education and the constitutional requirement to ensure the child receives a minimum education. The Education Act covers the other providers of education.
Mr. M. Higgins: I am interested in the Minister's earlier reference to the State's obligations relating to minimum education. This clashes with some court decisions which dealt with aspects of alternatives to the State schooling system and the phrase used was “suitable elementary education”. I take it when the Minister said it would be the function of the board to lay down the content of what he referred to as the prescribed minimum education that it would also adequately provide clarity for those exercising a home education option, such as a definition of a “suitable elementary education”, in order to be consistent with the court's decision.
Dr. Woods: The function will be to develop and introduce guidelines on minimum education to ensure children do not fall through the system and are not neglected. The Deputy will understand the constitutional position which has been clearly made, namely, that the Minister does not have power to go beyond that.
Mr. M. Higgins: The Constitution has been interpreted by the courts in the light of the provision of a “suitable elementary education” in a best case scenario. Will such prescription and the guidelines that will be developed be able to take account of that definition rather than the other definition which relates to the provision of a “minimum education”?
Dr. Woods: This again involves the difference between an elementary and a minimum education, a question with which the guidelines will have to deal. People must be satisfied that those guidelines are adequate. The problem for the State is the possibility that it might go too far in terms of interfering with the right of parents to educate their children outside the system. The guidelines will have to cover the requirement to which the Deputy refers.
Mr. R. Bruton: The Minister is in danger of being blinded by the constitutional constraints by which he is bound. If a parent decides that they do not want their child to be educated in the State system, the Minister's only stipulation is to ensure that the child receives a minimum education. However, I am concerned about young people who, for one reason or another, have strayed outside the recognised system,  perhaps into Youthreach or other areas of informal or community based areas of training and education. The Minister is not giving those individuals the same sort of support he plans to provide to children in recognised schools. He is saying that the educational welfare service, in light of the type of supports it is going to develop, will not cater for those children because they attend institutions which are not recognised by the State.
When responsibility for Youthreach was transferred from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to the Department of Education and Science a number of years ago, it was in recognition of the fact that the latter Department had expertise across a range of areas which could be of benefit to those involved in the scheme and that it would be better able to develop a coherent policy for Youthreach if responsibility for the scheme was not split between the two Departments. However, the Department of Education and Science, with its new found responsibility for the operation of Youthreach, appears to be saying that it does not intend to extend the benefits which the educational welfare board can bring in terms of the education of children to those involved in the scheme.
I do not understand the Department's approach to this issue. It seems that the arguments which make the development of attendance strategies, etc., within schools desirable make them equally desirable within Youthreach or whatever other schemes we sanction to provide education. In addition, the expertise, skills and psychological and other services the educational welfare board will develop in the future should be made available to such institutions to support them in dealing with those children who are often the most difficult to cater for in terms of education provision. I signalled previously that this is a weakness in the Bill and I do not understand why it has been retained.
Dr. Woods: —Youthreach is already regulated and it comes under the remit of the vocational education committees. Section 11 provides that the powers relating to this area may be expanded, if necessary. The Deputy may rest assured that the matters to which he refers are covered.
“5.–The Minister shall, as soon as may be after the end of each of the 2 years immediately following the passing of this Act, prepare a report on the operation, in the preceding year, of this Act, and shall cause copies of each such report to be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas.”.
Acting Chairman: Amendment No. 17 in the name of Deputy Bruton arises out of Committee proceedings and amendments Nos. 18, 19, 21, 71, 87 and 88 are related. Therefore, amendments Nos. 17 to 19, inclusive, 21, 71, 87 and 88 may be taken together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Amendment No. 17, which involves the insertion of the term “cultural, linguistic,” in section 9(1)(a), was recommended by some of the groups which promote cultural and linguistic development in this country. These groups strongly believe – I agree with them in this regard – that if the board has a role to play in promoting an appreciation of the benefits to be derived from education this should include promotion of the cultural and linguistic aspects of children's development in addition to their physical, intellectual, emotional, social and moral development.
The other amendments in my name refer to the need to be alert to the fact that Irish society is becoming multi-cultural and that in the future children will come from different ethnic as well as social backgrounds. When the board is developing policies to promote and foster an environment that encourages children to attend a school and participate fully in the life of that school, it should be conscious of the fact that children come from different social and ethnic backgrounds and that it cannot promote a mono-cultural way of dealing with these issues. It must actively assist schools in dealing with the welfare of children from different ethnic and social backgrounds.
There is a widespread belief that the culture of education has developed in such a way that children from certain social backgrounds are of the opinion that it is set up for them to fail. It is important that the educational welfare board's central task is to ensure that this sort of attitude which often develops in schools is dealt with and that the policies it puts in place ensure that chil dren enjoy success in school and do not find themselves continually failing to reach a standard they have been set which is foreign to them. It is vital that the environment in which people learn is supportive and that is the intention behind the Bill. There is a case that this should be explicitly recognised both in terms of the environment and policies schools will develop with the support and under the direction of the board.
Dr. Woods: Amendments Nos. 18 and 71 are intended to meet the views expressed on Committee Stage. They are designed to allow for a wide definition of the benefits of education. In general, therefore, I agree with Deputy Bruton's assertion that there is a need to ensure that the education system promotes tolerance and respect for peoples of all cultures. I do not believe it is necessary to go as far as the Deputy proposes, however, particularly in amendments Nos. 87 and 88. The broad statements provided for in my amendments fully meet the needs at issue.
The education system is based on the premise that children, regardless of their background, should be educated and that their needs must be met. Many children from different cultures are already in schools and, on the evidence of the schools I have visited, they are very happy. Education is currently provided in schools on a multi-cultural basis. Amendment Nos. 18 and 71 are designed to meet the views expressed on Committee Stage.
to promote and foster in society, and in particular in families, an appreciation of the benefits to be derived from education, in particular as respects the physical, intellectual, emotional, social, cultural and moral development of children, and of the social and economic advantages that flow therefrom.
I find the phrase “and of the social and economic advantages that flow therefrom” quite extraordinary. If, as the Minister stated, we are talking about the education of children, it is somewhat early to be telling children they belong to the economy. Some of us would argue that the word “economic” is actually redundant. The use of the word “economic” is something of a carrier of a utilitarian philosophy which is very recent.
Mr. R. Bruton: I am very disappointed by the manner in which the Minister has dealt with my amendments on the need to explicitly recognise that children from very different social and ethnic backgrounds are now presenting in our schools in the mandate we are giving to the board. The Minister will be aware of schools in the western suburbs of the city in which up to 60 children who are not even from EU backgrounds are presenting at schools. There will obviously be a growing need to accommodate their needs in the development of an environment within the school such as that envisaged in 9(1)(b) and also to conduct research into the needs and patterns of support required by children.
The Traveller community is an indigenous ethnic community whose needs are particularly important. Some 80% of Traveller children drop out of or do not attend school and it would be important, when giving the board a mandate to commission research, to explicitly consider the problems facing particular ethnic groups within our communities. The Minister will probably say that section 9(1)(b) is sufficiently general to encompass everything. However, the Oireachtas should send out a signal to the board that evidence already exists that non-attendance is a problem which affects minority groups, notably Travellers. It is very difficult to encourage Traveller children to proceed through the existing education system. That says more about the need to develop a better education system than the interests of Traveller children. This is a very important area and I would like to see it being explicitly recognised in the Bill.
Amendments Nos. 87 and 88 deal explicitly with that part of the Bill in which we are providing some relief from the Data Protection Act to allow research to be conducted. It would be worthwhile if some relief from the obligations of that legislation were provided to allow research into school attendance and the needs of children from particular backgrounds. If the board could gain access to certain records which might not normally be released to it, it could develop more coherent research. While respecting the necessity to protect individuals' privacy, I would like to see the National Educational Welfare Board having the necessary flexibility to access data and develop the type of research I have provided for in amendment No. 21. The Minister did not address the needs of my amendment at all in his reply. His amendment will simply result in the addition of the word “cultural” to the definition of the possible benefits of education.
This reinforces the traditional view that children should go to school, something we all agree is a very good thing. However, the difference between the subsection as it stands and the effect of Deputy Bruton's amendment which proposes the insertion of “of all social and ethnic backgrounds” after the word “children” is that the amendment would create an expectation of duty in the school to be receptive to difference. There is also a connotation of process in the amendment.
The most recent census figures on people's affiliations to different religions or belief systems listed 220 Pantheists. There is a huge difference between a general prescription that children should like going to school, something with which we would all agree, and saying that the environment which will be created in the school will be one which will encourage children from all social and ethnic backgrounds.
There is a prescriptive suggestion in Deputy Bruton's amendment which I like, namely, that the school cannot simply remain a neutral place but must recognise social difference and encompass it in the school's attractive environment. That would be a meaningful policy by which a child could be encouraged to go to school.
In regard to ethnic and other differences, in the absence of an amendment such as Deputy Bruton's, it may well be that some ethnic groups would begin to make a case to educate themselves separately from the institutionalised system. This has arisen in France. I urge the Minister to accept Deputy Bruton's amendment which would not weaken the Bill.
Dr. Woods: All children are included. The Deputy mentioned the numbers in some of the schools. One I visited has 50 children of the kind to which the Deputy referred from outside the EU and 40 children of the Traveller community. They are all happily integrated, and it is working extremely successfully.
I know there is much work to be done in this area. The problem is in getting the work done rather than in the powers to do the work. The power is there. It was really encouraging to see how successfully that work is being done in quite a number of schools. It belies what we are hearing publicly about these issues.
On the other issue of getting children to come to school, there is an interesting experiment in Dublin 17 at which the Deputy attended. He saw how successfully children were being encouraged to come to school through the breakfast scheme.  Whereas the breakfast scheme was intended to help a relatively small number of children, 900 children came for breakfast and kept coming early for breakfast thereafter. Perhaps that is the more appropriate way to address these problems than trying to prescribe in great detail for it in the Bill.
On the question of powers, the broad power is set out in section 27(3)(b)(iii), which refers to the general effectiveness of educational or training programmes. The data may be collected to promote the general effectiveness and, therefore, it is covered in that section.
Mr. R. Bruton: I always welcome the Minister visiting my ward to learn about education initiatives. It is in his Dáil constituency. However, he is missing the point. There are successful experiments, many of which are driven by well motivated teachers and principals getting support in that case, as the Minister rightly stated, from both business and the community.
Unfortunately, the records show that individual anecdotal evidence of success is belied by the hard data which shows that 80% of children of the Traveller community drop out of school before they reach the second level system. The hard evidence is that this is not working adequately. It would be remiss not to include in the Bill explicit encouragement and direction to the board to take action in these areas.
Equally, the real danger for the increasing numbers of children from different countries being educated in the system is that they too will face high dropout rates and high levels of non-participation. They will then become victims of unemployment, etc. That is a route down which we cannot afford to go. We must try to nip that in the bud.
The Educational Welfare Board will be one of the agencies to which we will be looking to do that. It would be a mistake to fail to explicitly set that out in the functions and tasks of the board and I could not have put it more eloquently than Deputy Higgins. It is a supportive measure which we could provide for here. It would be very much in line with what the Minister is trying to achieve with the Bill, it would give explicit legal recognition of this and there would always be a text to which to return. To some extent we are setting a direction for the future. This will be the record of where we want things to go and it will create a momentum over time.
The Minister is mistaken in not accepting some of these amendments. I concede that amendments Nos. 87 and 88 may be covered, but amendments Nos. 19 and 21 would do no harm to the Bill in the Minister's estimation and could only do good. Does the Minister oppose amendment No. 17?
This has to do with the general functions of the board. One of its key functions should be that it would monitor and report upon the records of attendance by pupils. There is not regular reporting. We do not know the level of regular non-attendance. Only the OECD report shows that Ireland's non-attendance rates are double those of most continental European countries. It is only from such outside sources that we are getting hard data. The Department of Education and Science has records only relating to an ad hoc sur vey in the early 1990s. Before that, even though there was a legal obligation on the Department, it did not maintain records. The board should develop and provide detailed reports on attendance and the Bill should state explicitly that the board would report on that.
We also need to look at the idea of an early warning system. Although I accept it is necessary, the Bill provides for quite a bureaucratic system of reporting and recording absences. A certain number of absences will trigger a report to the Educational Welfare Board and we would then hope the board would respond, but we must better anticipate needs. There are many cases where one will be aware for all sorts of different reasons that a child may be at risk. The wrong approach is to wait until that child has built up a record which is so bad that it is signalled to an educational welfare service. We should, where possible, try to develop pro-active policies within schools. The notion of an early warning system with a school being able to alert the board to the likelihood that a certain child will have problems and the need to apply the available support services would be a much better approach than the other one of waiting until the problems may have built up to a point where they are serious and much more difficult to remedy. I would like to see the early warning concept developed rather than making the acceptable level of failure the test. We must anticipate needs. The schools involved in this procedure will be, predominantly, in disadvantaged areas where 25% of children are regularly absent from school and 12% are absent for more than half of the school year. This is the case in parts of your constituency, Sir. These chronic problems will, of course, come to the attention of the board but it must develop early warning mechanisms in schools and put support mechanisms in place.
Mr. M. Higgins: I support the amendment, particularly with regard to early warning mechanisms. I am concerned that the exercise, while well meant, could become an exercise in accounting. I recall a teacher showing me an old roll book containing a list of non-attending pupils. I am reminded of the distinction between chartered accountancy and cost accountancy. Chartered accountants prepare accounts when the corporate entity has died or passed on while cost accountancy takes an ongoing view of the process. The House will note that I am shifting my logic into the logic of the market with a view to making it more attractive to those who are moved by such philosophical systems.
Mr. M. Higgins: Yes, I am sure the Minister is surprised. Children in trouble can be identified early. I am moved by the concept of children in trouble. I know families in which one brother follows another inexorably into a pattern of non- attendance. It is not necessary to wait until the third child in a family has established a pattern of non-attendance. It should be possible to identify children in need and to intervene at an early stage. The new system should be an interventionist one rather than one of accounting for casualties at the end of the process.
Dr. Woods: Both Deputies are concerned about the bureaucratic and accounting aspects of this measure. Those aspects also concern me. I do not wish to take a bureaucratic approach. The functions set out by Deputy Bruton in his proposed new subsections (e) and (f) are already laid down as specific duties of education welfare officers in section 21.
I have directly provided for an early warning system in section 21, especially by means of the 20 day absence rule and the six day suspension rule. There is also a more general provision which will allow principals to inform welfare officers where a student displays irregular attandance patterns. It is important to anticipate. I would like the board to establish good relations and links with principals and schools. There is a duty on the board, under section 9(1)(c) and 9(1)(d), to research this area and to find the best means of working within it.
Mr. R. Bruton: Section 21 refers to a school's obligation to provide for the identification at an early stage of pupils who are at risk of developing school attendance problems. My amendment requires the board to develop such a mechanism. Placing an obligation on a school to do so merely provides one element of support. Placing a similar obligation on the board seems more sensible and more valuable.
Mr. M. Higgins: I can see the merit in what Deputy Bruton has suggested. A school-based strategy allows for the possibility of people being lost between schools. This already happens in many areas when people move from one school to another. The advantage of placing an obligation on the board to put a strategy in place is that the strategy will be community based and will not be limited to the enrolment of a single school. The scheme could then deal with a catchment area rather than a single school. I see an advantage in that.
Dr. Woods: Paragraph (c) deals with the commissioning of research into the reasons for non-attendance and strategies and programmes to prevent it. This puts an onus on the board to develop anticipatory and early interventionist strategies as well as any other strategies which may be necessary. Paragraph (d) obliges the board to disseminate the results of such research to schools and to advise schools on matters relating to the prevention of non-attendance and on  the good conduct of students generally. This function of the board is covered.
Mr. R. Bruton: The Minister would be the first to recognise the difference between conducting research into the growing of tomatoes and actually growing the tomatoes and making sure they are grown in every school in the country. Directing the board to conduct research does not place an obligation on it to develop the consequences of that research. We do not need research to tell us that an early warning mechanism is desirable. The Minister is clutching at straws in reverting to those paragraphs to justify his rejection of the amendment.
Dr. Woods: The research is to be conducted in order to develop the strategies. The Deputy's reference to growing tomatoes is a good one. That requires anticipation and everything which goes with it. With the small amount of time available to me I cannot explain the matter further, but it would be very interesting. Nutrition and physiology play an important part in the process.
We had this discussion on Committee Stage when we were giving powers to the board to do certain things. One of the powers was to arrange, with the consent of the parent, for a child to be examined in regard to his or her intellectual, emotional or physical development in order to help develop an effective strategy for that child. My amendment seeks to provide that where a parent requests that this examination occur, it could be considered by the board. The board could, at its own initiative or following a request from a parent, arrange an examination. The Minister indicated on Committee Stage that he would consider that amendment.
Dr. Woods: The effect of this amendment would be to create a very open-ended provision for psychological services on demand. I do not believe that is appropriate or, indeed, possible.  The Deputy will be aware that we have already made significant provision for psychological services with the establishment of the national educational psychological service. However, we could not be in a position where any parent at any time could require, as a matter of statutory right, that an examination be carried out. Parents' views will, in practice, be respected. The provision itself provides for their consent to examinations. If a parent has a concern about a child, it will be taken seriously and an examination will be carried out. That, however, is different from requiring the board to respond to every request from a parent for an examination on a statutory basis.
Currently every effort is made to provide the psychological service following a request from a parent. We are recruiting large numbers of extra psychologists for this service. The need is being met and will be met, but the effect of the Deputy's amendment would be to make it a statutory right. I do not believe that is necessary and I cannot accept the amendment.
Mr. R. Bruton: I have a very different view from the Minister. I know statutory rights have to be thought about but this is an area in which we should have statutory rights. There are problems such as dyslexia – according to Scottish research, 50% of prisoners are dyslexic and this was not identified at an early stage in their career. Attention deficit disorder and other conditions clearly interfere with the child's progress. There should be a statutory right to such an assessment. I admit my amendment, as phrased, does not limit the request in any way. I accept that if we are drafting a statutory right, it should be limited in some way. In the UK where there is such a statutory right, they refer to evidence that a child has special needs and is not making progress. There is some prima facie test before this right is exercisable in law.
The Minister responded that this would be open-ended. He said that we are doing very well, but that is not the case. Let us be honest about it. Some 60% of children with special needs have had to get private assessments because there is a very long waiting list for public assessments. Recruitment to the psychological service has been painfully slow and difficult. We are not fulfilling the rights of children in this area. We are failing because it is not a legal obligation. Although the Department expresses the view that it would like that to be there, it nonetheless allows a system to persist which is not delivering assessment even to children who have serious needs. We are at the point where legal rights are the issue. There should be legal rights for children whose future careers will be blighted if they do not get access to such assessments in a timely way.
This is not a trivial issue, it is a serious one. I acknowledge the Minister said on previous occasions that he will not go down the road of legal rights at this stage. However, if we are talking about an educational welfare service which is  worth anything and we refuse to give a statutory right to children with serious difficulties to some form of assessment at the behest of their parents, we are not being very serious. It goes back to the issue about which we talked earlier, that is, the commitment to resources to make this happen. It is all very vague. If we do not have legal rights and we are not willing to commit resources, we have the recipe for what happened before in this area – we have all the laws on the Statute Book but nothing with which to butter the spuds at the end of the day.
Mr. M. Higgins: I would like to be entirely practical about this. I support the amendment for practical reasons. The Minister stated that we could have a situation where every parent would automatically request testing for their children. Section 9(4) states that the board “may”, and I cannot see why that could not be construed as the board exercising discretion so as to avoid any wasteful exercise.
Turning to the most important point, only the board, with the consent of the parent of the child concerned, has a right to initiate this. Parents have received notes saying their children are unco-operative, bold or whatever. I was at a meeting and I asked all the parents present who had got a note about good behaviour to put up their hand, but no one did because notes usually bring bad news. We will, however, leave that for another day. If the child is described as unco-operative, bold or otherwise, the child has had real difficulties – perhaps learning or tension difficulties – which are now only beginning to surface. Let us be frank about that.
The advantage of an amendment such as this – I hope Deputy Bruton presses it – is that the parent knows the child's difficulties more than anybody else. It is not only a school attendance difficulty about which one is talking. Once can observe a child's behaviour in terms of its sleep, behaviour with peers, siblings and other members of the family. Parents have often come to me and I have heard them stand up in court and say they do not know what to do. Would it not be a good thing if the child was hooked into the educational system, creating hope for himself or herself, that the parent in trouble would be able to say that they would like their child tested in relation to an intellectual, emotional or physical development, before anything disastrous happens? It might relate to a relationship with a parent or to the child's image of himself or herself in a bodily sense. If it is initiated by the person who has the most contact with the child, surely everyone benefits. Is it not better to include that?
The word “may” is used in section 9(4) and if one was flooded by such requests, the board, through the use of that word, has the right to exercise its discretion on how much it can handle. I urge the Minister to seriously consider accepting this amendment which parents, in particular, will welcome.
Dr. Woods: I do not believe it is necessary because the power is there do to this and it is happening at the moment. Deputy Bruton is right that the problem is that resources were not applied previously. However, the resources are being applied now under the current programme. I notice the Deputy nodding his head. To appoint staff, one must go through the Civil Service Commission – one cannot just appoint someone to a Civil Service post. Appointments are currently being finalised through the Civil Service Commission. There is a commitment to go further with that over the next year. It is a question of personnel. The parents communicate with the teachers and the principal. The problem is the numbers of psychologists available. It is being dealt with and the only way it will be addressed is by providing the staff and the people to do the job. They have not been provided in the past, but they will be provided now.
Mr. R. Bruton: This is fairyland talk from the Minister. The announcement of a national psychological service was made three years ago. The Minister tells us today that he is now finalising the arrangement with the Civil Service Commission for a competition. That is laughable.
Mr. R. Bruton: Year in, year out in discussions on the Estimates we hear about the intention to appoint 25 people. Now we are advised there is one more hurdle to be overcome before they are appointed. The Minister knows that if there was a legal obligation or right it would be done. We have seen the power of legal decisions in education many times. Very recently the Department changed its strategy on children with special needs because of a ruling on legal rights.
Let us not fool ourselves that the Department is urgently seeking to provide services in this area. It is not happening. Ministers for Finance and others can be as lackadaisical as they like about these issues because there are no statutory obligations placed on them. We need to reverse the rights so that there is a statutory right for parents and children to have these assessments done. They are not happening as any parent of a child will special needs will attest. If the Minster was to give a speech to an annual conference dealing with children with special needs about how we have a service for assessment he would be laughed at.
This amendment is a start in creating the momentum for change and I urge the Minister to accept it. It would give him far greater leverage in developing the kind of service I know he wants to develop. He has been spectacularly unable to develop it, despite a Government commitment three years ago.
It was one of the poor law residues in national schools in Ireland, exercised at different times when there were crises in relation to public health epidemics that poor children who had not the means of washing were told that they would be taken behind the blackboard to be examined. Health inspectors of different departmental hue would arrive and it was one of the great pedagogic terrors to be examined in school. The word “examined” in that sense is singularly inappropriate in this legislation. The word “assessed” is used in most of the humane applied sciences, be it in psychotherapy, psychology, the social sciences or whatever else. I cannot see why the word “assessed” rather than “examined” should be used here.
Indeed, examination is not possible because there is no precision about the provision. Section 9(4) states: “The Board may, with the consent of the parent of the child concerned, arrange for a child to be examined . . .”. Does this mean poked at or set upon? What does it mean? It does not fit into the section. It is more likely that the Minster will want to replace the word “examined” and substitute “assessed”. We can then quickly dispose of this anachronism.
Mr. R. Bruton: I support Deputy Higgins. Reference to children and their special needs is always to child assessments – psychological assessment and assessment of their emotional well being. The use of the word “examine” would send the wrong signal, saying to parents that there was something irregular happening and the child was, therefore, coming under examination. It would have all the wrong connotations. By contrast, we have reached the position where parents recognise that a child should be assessed if they are exhibiting any difficulties. We should be careful in legislation to use phrases that are supportive.
Dr. Woods: These amendments seek to change the terminology used where the board arranges for the consideration of a child's physical, emotional or intellectual development. The Deputy proposes that this be an assessment. The Bill provides for an examination. It provides for the board to arrange to carry out examinations, under section 10, and assessments, under section  15. These are intended to be two separate and distinct events aimed at different groups. The examination in section 10 is to provide for situations where, for example, the welfare board is considering how to provide for a child who has been expelled from school and is thought to have psychological problems. An examination might be necessary to assist the board in planning for the future provision for such a child.
An assessment under section 15 refers specifically to a situation where a child is being educated outside the recognised school system and the board wishes to ensure that the child is receiving a minimum education. The Deputy will appreciate that these are very different situations. In the latter the board acts to vindicate the constitutional rights of each child to receive a minimum education. This is a non-judgmental, factual assessment. In the former case, a situation has arisen where a child has experienced significant problems in his or her education and remedial action is necessary to assist the child. The effect of the Deputy's amendments would be to cause confusion as to these two different events. Accordingly, I cannot accept the amendments.
Mr. M. Higgins: The only thing that has caused confusion is the Minster's reply. He suggests that assessment should be confined to section 15. If he wants to use assessment in section 15, then as they say in Connemara “away leat”. That is fine. However, I never argued, nor did he until now, that because the word “assessment” is used in section 15 its use is inappropriate in section 10.
The Minister has not addressed the amendment. The issue is concerned with the appropriateness of the word “examination” rather than “assessment” in section 10. The Minister's defence of his position is that because assessment is used for non-school options in section 15 the word “assessment” cannot be used as a substitute for the word “examination” in section 10. This is nonsense. On what basis would an examination be carried out? The Minister has identified a delinquent syndrome covering the person who may have been expelled from school. I can envisage a situation in such circumstances where a teacher tells a parent that the child will not be examined but assessed. It means that the Bill is stuck with the resonance of the word “examine”– examine by what procedure and for what?
It is the most pathetic defence to say that we are using “assessment” in a limited context for non-school options in section 15 so, therefore, we cannot consider its appropriateness in section 10. Tough luck. The Minister should redraft section 10 properly. I cannot accept that if one puts in “Assessment” with a capital “A” in section 15, one cannot use this term in any other section of the Bill. Bad drafting is the problem. If the Minister does not accept this amendment, I will press it and I also intend to call a division on it. I regard this word “examination” in such circumstances as that serious that it contravenes every principle that we are trying to apply relating to, for  example, children in difficulty or in trouble. That is all we have and whether the children are expelled, they are still in trouble. We are going to use the language of assessment. I will not accept the use of language such as “we had your child examined”. I am beginning to think that this is worse than an anachronism.
The Minister's reply has created immense problems for me because in section 15, when we come back to it, he argues for an inconsistent interpretation of the needs of children, between the ones that arise under the section 10 process and the section 15 process. I will press the amendment.
the Board may, with the consent of the parent of the child concerned, arrange for the child to be examined as to his or her intellectual, emotional and physical development (hereafter in this section referred to as “an examination“) by such a person as may be determined by the Board with the concurrence of the parent.
Mr. M. Higgins: I am grateful to the Minister for accepting the amendments and I understand that representations are made. One of the reasons I was anxious to press the amendments was in relation to the science and the professional practice of it. The professional practice is able to assess but cannot conclude on an examination in the way one can in a physical science very often. One cannot arrive at such a precise conclusion as would be warranted by examination. I am happy the Minister accepts the amendments Nos. 27 to 31, inclusive.
11.–Paragraph 1(2) of the First Schedule to the Freedom of Information Act, 1997, is hereby amended by the addition, after ‘the Board of the National Museum of Ireland,' of ‘An Bord Náisiúnta um Leas Oideachais,'.”.
This amendment inserts before section 11 the words stated in the amendment. It simply adds the board to the list of public bodies to which the Freedom of Information Act applies. If the board was not included, it means that the terms of the Act would not apply. The Minister stated on Committee Stage that he would seek to incorporate this amendment.
Dr. Woods: I agree with the principle of the amendments here but differ as to how they might be achieved. Both the Freedom of Information Act and the Ombudman Acts already provide a mechanism to allow for the expansion of the Acts concerned to add two new bodies, which, as the Deputy will realise, has just been done recently. Given that these mechanisms already exist, I propose that they will be used rather than amend this Bill. I assure the Deputy that with my colleague, the Minister for Finance, I will arrange for the extension of both the FOI Act and the Ombudsman Acts to the Education and Welfare Board on its establishment.
The purpose of this amendment is to ensure a person would be designated rather than to leave it vague. It was to ensure that the Minister would appoint one of his or her officers as a development officer for each school in every disadvantaged area in order to promote the development of appropriate relationships between the school and the local business community and relevant agencies. It was an attempt to make the impact of the legislation specific in health board areas.
Dr. Woods: My intention with the liaison officer is to provide a network of communication at a senior level within all the institutions concerned with the issue of non-attendance to fulfil an early warning, co-ordinating and information sharing function. Through this network, the agencies involved can work more effectively at local level. My intention is that a senior member of the welfare board should participate in this network and disseminate information as appropriate throughout the education welfare officer structure. However, at local level, I expect that the local education welfare officer would be in close contact with the relevant health board, Garda authorities and other concerned bodies to allow for an integrated approach to local problems. The amendment is not necessary in those circumstances.
Mr. M. Higgins: My point was to close off the possibility of an area being left without the liaison the Minister described. The Minister's reply is interesting in that he says “he envisages” and that “we would be expected”. That may be his reasonable expectation, but the whole purpose of the amendment was to specify that there would not be a health board without a mechanism such as he has described. As to whether it is necessary to provide for this minimum representation in statute, the Minister seems confident that it can be met. I do not want the amendment to be taken, however, as providing for the maximum representation. There may be a need for more.
On Committee Stage Members were of the view that the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht  and the Islands should be included to broaden the bodies with which the National Educational Welfare Board will be in consultation. I do not see a direct connection between the board and the body to be established under section 31 of the Education Act. In the circumstances I would prefer to leave the working out of the relationship to the bodies themselves. Paragraph (j) allows other bodies to be added as necessary and will facilitate the inclusion of the section 31 body if and when appropriate.
Liaison is a two way process. If a liaison system is to be put in place it seems that persons designated as liaison officers who will liaise regularly with the National Educational Welfare Board should have the power of initiative where it comes to their attention that a child has particular attendance problems. Under the amendment such a person would be able to request the convening of a meeting to assess the needs of the child concerned. I am referring to local rather than high level national liaison committees. It is important where a juvenile liaison officer or a health board social worker can see a problem emerging in a family and is of the view that there is a need for a co-ordinated response that it will not be left to the National Educational Welfare Board to convene a meeting. It should be a dual process whereby a meeting may be triggered by a social worker. The problem in the co-ordination of services is that, although different bodies agree to participate, their commitment is less than full. If it was a two way process it would be much more likely that the different bodies would buy into it if they could have their agendas addressed where they identify families in need. The amend ment would complement what the Minister has in mind in relation to local liaison.
Dr. Woods: Designated persons are already provided for in the Bill in the form of educational welfare officers who will be in the best position to deal with individual cases and assess the needs of children and those of the school concerned. Through the liaison officer appointed by the National Educational Welfare Board under subsection (1) they will be in the best position to bring together representatives of the other bodies covered in section 12.
Mr. R. Bruton: Where a social worker can see a problem emerging and is of the view that this will lead to school attendance problems and that there is a need for a co-ordinated response – perhaps the family concerned has been in trouble with the law and the child in question is under the supervision of a Garda diversion officer or in receipt of support from an educational welfare officer – the social worker, Garda diversion officer or educational welfare officer should be in a position to trigger the convening of a meeting to meet the needs of the child and family in question by the pooling of resources. The Minister seems to be of the view that the educational welfare officer will be in entire possession of the best information and will take the initiative, but that is not the way things happen in reality. One is much more likely to receive the co-operation of the different agencies if one is willing to state that one does not possess all knowledge and that they, too, may trigger a case conference where they identify a problem.
Dr. Woods: There is a need to ensure integration, for people to come together in a team to integrate the services available. Such a process has been initiated. The key person will be the educational welfare officer to whom a case may be referred by a school, parent and so on. They will seek to ensure co-ordination.
Mr. Barrett: I support my colleague, Deputy Bruton. I fail to see how the amendment would weaken or interfere with the Bill in any way. There may be good intentions but it is far better to build them into legislation. I have served on many school boards during the years. The most horrifying case  a board can deal with is the possible expulsion of a child. In such a case the principal would give a full report on the behavioural problems of the child in question over a long period. In many instances if there had been liaison at an early stage between the Garda Síochána, the school and the health service, the children concerned would never have reached the stage where the board was faced with their expulsion. Unfortunately, many of these children end up in St. Patrick's institution or Mountjoy jail. Early intervention is required when young children experience problems in the home or at school. I support this amendment because a child's life can be destroyed because of a lack of proper liaison at the most crucial time. I urge the Minister to accept this amendment. It will not damage the legislation but merely states what should happen in law. We are here to make certain that we express in legislation the concern that this sort of liaison should occur.
Mr. M. Higgins: Does the Minister agree this amendment specifies a trigger mechanism? He may reply by saying this will happen automatically but it does not happen now and it will not happen in the future. This amendment is based on practice in other countries that involves people working in different areas, such as health, education, social welfare, justice, juvenile liaison and so on. We are not suggesting that people convene fortnightly or monthly conferences to discuss individual cases but that those monitoring particular cases can trigger the mechanism concerning a child's needs. This means a person will be able to trigger an intervention strategy in which parent, child and those responsible give their consent.
The argument is whether the people specified take on a responsibility and there will be occasions when they will take the initiative. The only alternative, which is becoming tiresome at this stage, is to suggest that the administration will be so perfect that it will be impossible not to cater for a child's needs. With the best will in the world that can never be the case. Things happen in different areas of the community of which people will be aware. There may be a family conflict or other reasons. The best way to help a child in such a situation is for a person to ask for the case to be considered. I support this amendment which proposes a pro-active instrument for delivering the care the Bill intends.
Dr. Woods: The provision is there for designated officers – educational welfare officers in schools – who are best placed to deal with individual cases, to assess the needs of children. There is sufficient provision in this regard and I do not consider the wider proposal necessary.
Mr. R. Bruton: I am disappointed by the Minister's response. If we go to the trouble of setting up a liaison system, which is very important, there is no point in setting up a sterile system which is  solely driven by the educational welfare officer being all-seeing and wise and convening this group. All the Bill does is to stipulate that if the board requests records about a child those records will have to be delivered. This will impose an obligation on people to provide necessary records to the educational welfare officer. However, this runs the risk of being an extremely sterile liaison process which will not breathe real life into the notion of co-ordinating responses and being pro-active in identifying families with difficulties.
We will have a more meaningful system if, from the outset, we accept that liaison is a two-way process and that all the agencies and the community which become involved have powers of initiative and are equal partners, and that they have a right to trigger a response if they identify problems. This is already happening successfully in some communities where there is co-ordination. It should not be a top-down mechanism controlled by one group which has all the powers of initiative and powers to demand records. That is not how things work in practice. The process has to be founded on confidence and mutuality among the different groups and that is what we are trying to achieve.
The Minister can benefit only by giving this right. There is no point in having an elaborate liaison structure if, at the end of the day, the parties do not want to be there and are not willing to put their resources behind what is going on in the committee. Such a scenario will be just one more drag on social workers and others who are already very busy. We have to create an environment where this system is seen to work for all the participants. This is important as we have seen many such integrated service initiatives fail because relationships were not properly structured at the beginning.
“(7) The Board shall endeavour to establish a liaison network at local level which shall also involve those involved in education and other relevant community groups to promote coherent and consistent support to pupils, parents and schools.”.
This amendment seeks to ensure the liaison structure will be not just some super board set up at national or regional level which is remote from schools and parents. If the liaison structure is to work it has to use local social workers, local juvenile diversion officers and people who work in the community. There are many active community groups who are willingly supporting schools, whether by way of homework clubs, out of school activities or what could be described as home-school liaison work. There are many such  groups, particularly in the partnership areas, and it is important that the liaison structure, spelt out in great detail by the Minister, does not become remote from problems on the ground but is available in local areas and is seen to be able to deliver co-ordinated responses to families.
This is why I have proposed there should be a liaison network at local level. It is important to establish this principle as many good initiatives are in place which have not been given statutory recognition. The Bill proposes a top-down development of education welfare, ignoring the fact that there are many active community groups doing great work involving early warning systems with schools and local support networks. We need to recognise and support these initiatives and ensure the model is copied to the benefit of other communities. This is an important dimension which should be recognised statutorily, rather than receiving fairly bland assurances from the Minister that it will happen on the ground.
The Minister's predecessor told us we would have county education committees which would do all sorts of things at county level. This never happened. If we do not include a statutory element, local liaison may again fail to happen.
Mr. Higgins: (Dublin West): I support this amendment, particularly in the context of schools in disadvantaged areas where poverty exists. Social problems are particularly acute there as a result of poverty. The amendment applies to schools everywhere because this happens informally in schools in areas with more resources. However, with regard to schools in working class communities where deprivation exists and where this is reflected in terms of the attendance of pupils and other acute problems, the encouragement of liaison groups that bring together community organisations, parents and teachers should be put on a statutory basis.
From my experience, for example, in the Blakestown and Mountview area, an existing parent/teacher liaison group deals particularly with the problems associated with the fact that non-attendance is higher in some schools in the area than their equivalents in well off areas which have more resources. The Minister and Government should support parents, teachers and voluntary organisations in the community who would gladly work together in relation to the resourcing of activities outside the school curriculum.
They would play a vital role in getting to grips with problems in the community that give rise to children being at a disadvantage from an early age. I am particularly concerned about the disadvantage of higher non-attendance in some sections of the community which are harder hit by economic deprivation than others. I hope education welfare officers will be appointed sooner rather than later and that they will be a further support with regard to coming to grips with some of the problems.
Mr. M. Higgins: I also support the amendment. I have an idea that the Minister wishes to be a reforming Minister for Education and Science. If that is to be the case, the concept of the school in the community must be changed. People can talk about this issue until the cows come home but, at present, many schools and teachers are perceived as having a relationship with the Department where, at a certain time in the late afternoon, doors start to be closed, lights are turned off, playgrounds are emptied and parents get on with their role, which involves the delivery and collection of children, while an immense security problem arises across the sweep of the country. There are a few variations on that theme involving the participation of parent/teacher councils which I support.
However, I want liaison to work locally because if one wants to go into a school after closing time, one is told that Church & General would require a special policy to cover whatever activity one wants to organise. Children go to bushes and fields where they drink cider or Buckfast and the gardaí drive around in their cars and tell them to move on. They warn them once or twice and the next thing is that they are all down in the station. The children are told that they gave lip to the gardaí, their parents are alerted and they contact their local Deputies. This is what is happening on the ground.
I regularly meet people involved in this and it is an outrage in places where there are no community, arts, recreation centres or skating rinks that State property becomes a security risk in the evening. Schools are part of the community and it is vital that this area is considered differently. The school should be viewed as part of the community, an institution which tries to help other institutions and not one which responds only to the Department. I wish the Minister well but many wonderful people have lost their intellectual lives in such Departments. If, as the amendment suggests, coherent and consistent support for pupils, parents and schools is to be promoted, the education welfare system needs liaison.
When the Garda Commissioner has stopped all his PR exercises, he might explain to the House why it is necessary for so many children to be in Garda stations so often. I will return to this subject, but we should try to make the community work. If a chief liaison officer is appointed to deal with another liaison officer, it will lead to sections talking to each other, but people on the ground may not talk to each other. The purpose of the amendment is to make liaison happen locally in the community in so far as it envisages a new deal in schools. However, it would be better to leave schools open all night instead of the current situation where young children are in communities with no facilities. Ireland is one of the worst countries in Europe in this regard. Britain, for example, provides skating rinks and other facilities. Our approach is to round up children, bring them to police stations and suggest they are a threat to public order.
Mr. Barrett: I also support the amendment. We live in an age where the European Union is developing and there is much talk about the principle of subsidiarity. The amendment is an attempt to introduce subsidiarity at local level. Our system of local government is not working – it is not local government in the real sense. The amendment would provide proper local government in terms of educational facilities, curriculum development, sporting development and physical education. These and other good developments could take place if State properties were made available to community groups which do not work against the institutions of the State. These people give much of their time on a voluntary basis and put in much effort to help their local communities.
The amendment is carefully worded. It states that the board shall endeavour to establish a liaison network; it does not go any further. I presume the Minister will accept the amendment because there is no justifiable or logical reason not to accept it. Despite what people might think, there is still large scale unemployment in many areas of my constituency because many people are not skilled for the type of jobs that are available. There may be a culture where nobody in the home has ever worked. A child could be asked to do homework in a home where music might be blaring and the family is living in overcrowded conditions. Due to housing problems, the child's sister might be living there with her child or two children and her partner. There is no opportunity for the pupil to study. That is the reality on the ground.
However, the schools are locked when perhaps, with proper liaison as suggested in the amendment, members of the community who have taken early retirement, etc. would supervise homework on a voluntary basis and perhaps give a little extra help in their community, which will benefit everybody.
There is no point complaining about vandalism unless we do something practical to prevent it. People who would have spent a great deal of time promoting sport after school no longer do so because of the absence of religious orders in educational institutions. This means school facilities are available and could be used to promote sport and physical education. One good thing about sport is that, if people are involved in it, they do not have time to get into trouble. It is also good for people and should be part of their education.
Another point about which I feel strongly is the curriculum, because it means nothing to some children and they do not relate to it. In discussing education, we should concentrate on education in a broad sense. Community groups which work with local people, hear their needs and receive feedback could introduce extra curricular activities or amend the curriculum to make it more meaningful to the children to whom we refer. As Deputy Higgins rightly said, there is a feeling that everything is handed down from the top, that there is a person or people in the Department of  Education and Science who know better than the rest of us about what is good for children attending school. There are many people in the community who are capable of assisting us to develop a system whereby we will no longer witness the scandal of children leaving school illiterate, without skills for work and perhaps ending up in trouble because of frustration.
The Board shall endeavour to establish a liaison network at local level which shall also involve those involved in education and other relevant community groups to promote coherent and consistent support to pupils, parents and schools.
I cannot see how that could interfere with what the Minister is trying to establish in the legislation. It can only benefit it. I strongly urge him to accept the amendment and show that debate in this Chamber means something. If a person makes a sensible point, then we should amend the legislation. It is not a defeat for the Government if it accepts an Opposition amendment. This is the way in which legislation should be developed and I sincerely hope the Minister will accept the amendment.
Mr. Callely: I welcome the Bill and the manner in which the Minister for Education and Science is handling the issue and addressing the various relevant and related matters. I congratulate my constituency colleague, Deputy Richard Bruton, on tabling the amendment being discussed. I wholeheartedly support the importance of the Educational Welfare Board endeavouring to ensure that work will be done in close co-ordination with communities at local level. It is important that those who are the education providers in our communities are a vital component of local community spirit. Does the board have the authority or power to set up such a network or can it be encouraged to do so? I would be surprised if the Minister were not to encourage it to do so. I concur with the sentiments of the amendment and the previous speaker's comments on it. Perhaps we should give the Minister an opportunity to respond and see what can be done to ensure the participation of that important and vital ingredient of our community, namely, local education providers and those associated with them.
Dr. Woods: I appreciate the points made by Deputies about the importance of a school working within its environment and having the support of all the different people who live there. We can see it happening and, where it happens, it is excellent and works well. Deputy Joe Higgins mentioned some of the disadvantaged areas where there are special problems and I accept that. However, there is great liaison and support throughout the country. I have visited a number  of schools throughout the country and I will visit many more during summer. There is great support and involvement with parents within communities and, where it exists, it overcomes many of the problems, so it is necessary.
In amendment No. 38, the activity to which the Deputy refers is something I would expect to occur in the normal course of the work of liaison officers, specifically education welfare officers. Such officers will be assigned to a school or a group of schools and will be the means by which the board exercises its functions at local level. These functions include providing supports to parents and students. I see no advantage in imposing a legislative requirement of the type now proposed. The objective of the amendment should be allowed to develop through the interaction which is bound to occur between the board and other agencies rather than through a legislative requirement which could all too easily result in more bureaucracy and less service to the people who need it.
Deputy Callely asked if the board has certain powers. The board has the power to co-operate with groups locally and that is provided in section 9. The board is empowered to co-operate with all these relevant groups. In section 22, schools are empowered to co-operate with local groups to provide a more comprehensive and holistic education. In addition, the Educational Welfare Board will include a representative of the community and voluntary sector. That is provided for under the Partnership for Prosperity and Fairness. These are important structures designed to meet the needs as set out and seen by Deputies. It is preferable to give people the power to do it and to then provide it through the system of management. It is not helpful to legislate for each of the sectors and, therefore, I do not propose to accept the amendment.
Mr. R. Bruton: I am profoundly disappointed by the Minister's reply. The wishes of the House in this area are clear. The evidence of experience proves that this type of co-operation and liaison does not happen spontaneously. The Northside Partnership has done tremendous work in education in my area which would never have happened had there not been an obligation to establish that type of network. It has brought together a large number of schools which are co-operating and the community is involved. It has a small amount of money to promote activities which make a difference to people.
Mr. R. Bruton: There was an obligation. A provision existed which established a network, namely, the Northside Partnership, which meant that it suddenly became possible to do certain things. With £10 million for education spread across all partnership boards in the country, those boards have done more to drive innovation in the  education system than the Department has done in years with its budget of £3 billion. Local networks make a difference. Not only can they add value by having community people doing things voluntarily, they also have a way of looking at problems which is in tune with local needs. The Department or the Educational Welfare Board, even with a community representative, will not have the reach to design local responses to local needs.
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