Wednesday, 29 February 2012
Dáil Éireann Debate
I am pleased to introduce this Bill for the consideration of the House. A previous version of the Bill, namely the Education (Amendment) Bill 2010, was brought before the Dáil in October 2010 by my predecessor, Mary Coughlan, but was never presented on Committee Stage here. On becoming Minister for Education and Skills last March, I asked my Department to set about resurrecting that legislation with some changes. The Bill currently before us thus retains most of the technical, house-keeping parts of the 2010 Bill but also reflects the changed priorities of the current Government for our education system.
Perhaps the biggest change to the Bill is that it no longer provides for the involvement of vocational education committees in the provision of primary education. As an Opposition Deputy in 2010, I was of the view that the manner in which the Department of Education and Skills introduced a new pilot form of community national school at primary level, while welcome, should only have been done following consideration of the matter by a forum on patronage and pluralism in the primary school sector. One of my first acts as Minister was to establish that forum and I expect that its final report and recommendations will be published shortly.
The advisory group to the forum on patronage presented its initial reflections last November and indicated that it is broadly supportive of the continuation of the community national school model. As a result, I believe it will be necessary to provide this patronage model with a statutory footing in the near future. This reform will require separate legislation and provides an opportunity for the Oireachtas to pass one consolidated piece of legislation dealing with every aspect of VEC education. I believe that will be a more appropriate place in which to put, on a statutory footing, the arrangements for the establishment and running of primary schools by the successors to the VECs, which will be known as the local education and training boards. It is the Government’s intention to make progress in this regard before the end of the year. Members of the House will be aware that I have already circulated the heads of that Bill to the Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education.
I will now turn my attention to the Education (Amendment Bill) 2012 itself. This Bill provides for the amendment of the Education Act 1998 and the Teaching Council Act 2001 on several education matters. These include clarification on the delivery of speech therapy services to students; the abolition of the educational disadvantage committee; revised provisions in the procedures for the appointment, suspension and dismissal of teachers and other staff; arrangements for the employment, in certain exceptional and limited circumstances, of persons who are not registered teachers under the Teaching Council Act 2001; and provision for the Teaching Council to make regulations to apply certain conditions to the renewal of registration of teachers.
Section 4 provides for three amendments to definitions contained in section 2(1) of the Education Act 1998. The definition of “educational disadvantage” is amended in section 4(a) as a result of the repeal of section 32 of the Education Act 1998 which is provided for in section 7. This section also provides for the substitution of the definition of “principal” to take account of the changes to appointment procedures proposed in the Bill.
Section 4 provides for an amendment in the definition of “support services” in sections 2 and 7 of the Education Act 1998 to clarify the position in the delivery of speech therapy services and other health and personal services to students of school-going age. The Education Act 1998 lists the planning and co-ordination of support services, including speech therapy services, as a function of the Minister for Education and Skills. The legislative framework will be regularised in accordance with the de facto position, which is that the provision of speech therapy services is a matter for the Health Service Executive, HSE. This position is already acknowledged by the Oireachtas through the provision of voted moneys to the HSE to deliver such services.
The continued existence of sections 2 and 7, as currently phrased, causes confusion for parents, schools, and professionals as to who is the service provider. There are no services which are currently being provided by the Department of Education and Skills which will no longer be provided as a result of the revised legislation. Rather, the amendment is necessary to clarify the actual position in the delivery of speech therapy services to students of school-going age. The proposed provisions will not impact on the availability of speech therapy services for children with special educational needs through the HSE. Additional funding of €7.2 million for disability was provided to the HSE in budget 2009 for the provision of 90 additional therapy posts targeted to support children with disabilities of school-going age and including speech and language therapists.
The Department’s commitment to support the co-ordinated delivery of services to families of children with special educational needs is not diminished by this amendment. The Department will continue to work with partners in the health and disability sectors through the vehicle of the cross-sectorial team, as established under the auspices of the office of the Minister of State with responsibility for disability and mental health, and the national disability strategy stakeholder monitoring group.
The amendment under section 5 follows on from the amendment made in section 4, to amend the definition of “support services” in section 2 of the Education Act 1998. Section 2 of the 1998 Act has been amended to clarify the position that the delivery of health and personal services, including speech therapy services, to students of school-going age is not a support service to be provided by the Minister for Education and Skills. Section 7(5) and (6) of the Education Act, which provide for the Minister for Education and Skills to request the assistance of health boards to make provision for such services, no longer applies. These support services are now delivered by the HSE, as opposed to by individual health boards, subsequent to the establishment of the HSE by the Health Act 2004. The HSE has responsibility for the delivery and for the planning and co-ordination of service delivery.
Section 6 provides for a revised text of sections 23 and 24 of the Education Act 1998 to provide for the appointment, suspension and dismissal of teachers and other school staff in accordance with procedures put in place by the Minister following consultation with the education partners.
Sections 23 and 24 currently provide for the appointment, suspension and dismissal of principals and teachers by the board of management of a school in accordance with procedures agreed between the Minister, the patron, recognised school management organisations and trade unions.
Section 24 already gives powers of approval to the Minister for the number of teachers or staff employed by schools and the qualifications of such staff. It also gives a power to the Minister to determine the terms and conditions of such staff. In terms of the procedures to be utilised in respect of appointment, suspension or dismissal of staff, section 24 introduces a requirement for agreement of all parties. The current requirement for agreement as distinct from consultation on these matters could, on the face of it, be invoked by any one party to withhold agreement. In so doing, it could prevent the putting in place of procedures that concern the terms and conditions of staff in the areas of appointment, suspension and dismissal. The current construction could even prevent reform that has been agreed between most of the parties.
On Committee Stage in the Seanad, I stated the word “agreement” should not equate to unanimity or veto but, equally, that consultation must not mean a diktat or imposition. In response to concerns raised by many Seanad Members, I have given assurances that, following enactment of this Bill, my officials will engage in discussions with the education partners on having a general consensus around the extent and quality of this consultation and on how agreements are reached. I want to put it into a formal understanding rather than in primary legislation.
I have committed to utilising established procedures, such as the Teachers Conciliation Council, as a vehicle for these discussions. The Department will also engage directly with patron bodies which are not members of the council. This approach reflects the well-established tradition of consulting on, and wherever possible securing agreement for, change which has been, and will continue to be, used in the Department. Existing mechanisms will not be displaced. However, we need to be sure that progress can be made on such matters where total agreement cannot be reached and where this is necessary in the public interest.
The new section 24(5) provides for the redeployment of teachers and other school staff in accordance with redeployment procedures determined by the Minister of the day, with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, following consultation with stakeholders. A person redeployed under these procedures will become an employee of the board of management or vocational education committee, VEC, to which he or she has been redeployed.
While having fully efficient and effective teacher redeployment arrangements has been always an objective of the Department, it has assumed a critical dimension in the context of the EU-IMF framework. This is because of the ceiling on numbers under the employment control framework and the imperative of staying within that limit because it is part and parcel of the memorandum of understanding with the troika. We also have obligations under the Croke Park agreement on redeployment.
It must be understood there is an almost total embargo on recruitment across the public service, meaning that, in most cases, vacancies are not filled. Where there are limited derogations, open recruitment can be considered only where redeployment is not an option. The education sector has been relatively well protected on this front and individual sanction by my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, is not required. However, the requirement to redeploy any surplus teachers before recruitment can be considered or authorised is as binding in the schools’ sector as it is in any other part of the public service. The Bill is intended to ensure clarity and certainty by providing explicit statutory provision for redeployment. Redeployment is about a change in a teacher’s appointment and is very much part of the terms and conditions of teachers.
While under the existing section 24 the Minister has the power to determine the terms and conditions of teachers, I still believe there is a value in making clear that redeployment arrangements can also be determined by the Minister, if need be. Again, this is to avoid any situation developing whereby the position of any one party might inhibit or delay the operation of redeployment processes either in general or in an individual case simply because that party seeks to invoke a veto.
Consultation is again provided for and my Department remains committed to working in partnership and building consensus. As with appointment or disciplinary matters, my policy is to create consensus on redeployment arrangements. That is the best way forward. I do, however, need a measure that, at the end of the day, enables me to ensure that redeployment is not delayed or prevented in general or in individual cases. I am confident that redeployment arrangements can continue to be developed to accommodate concerns and issues as they arise.
I wish to turn now to the employment of people who are not registered teachers, which was a matter of considerable concern at the various teachers’ conferences last spring. I am fully committed to ensuring that, to the greatest extent possible, only qualified and registered teachers are employed in recognised schools which are funded by the taxpayer. Section 30 of the Teaching Council Act 2001 currently provides that a person employed as a teacher cannot be paid from the public purse unless he or she is a teacher registered with the Teaching Council. The INTO and the ASTI have argued for the commencement of this section without qualification for the past 11 years.
While the position of only employing registered teachers is a logical and desirable one, it does not always reflect the practicalities at school level. Schools may, at short notice, have to engage a person in place of a registered teacher who may be sick or unable to attend school for some other reason. Despite the high numbers of newly qualified teachers, principals can experience genuine problems in sourcing a registered teacher. If there were no exception to the requirement to be registered, there would be occasions, albeit a small number, when in the absence of such a person students would have to be sent home. The Bill amends the Education Act 1998 in order to permit the Minister of the day to regulate the conditions attaching to the employment of an unregistered person in such circumstances.
The conditions can include a requirement that an unregistered person may be employed if, and only if, a registered teacher is not available to take up the position, as well as limits on the length of time in which an unregistered person can be employed, the purposes for which he or she may be employed, and a requirement that the school continue to seek the services of a registered teacher. As a result of an amendment proposed by Senator Power in the Seanad, which I accepted, the regulations may also include a requirement that the unregistered person be subject to Garda vetting. Much of that is already being done administratively. Under Circular 31/2011 issued by my Department in May of last year following the teachers’ conferences, the employment of an unregistered person is limited to a continuous period of five days at a time and schools remain under a continuing obligation to source a registered teacher. Schools must also prioritise registered teachers over unregistered people.
As a result of that approach, if there is an adequate supply of registered teachers, then schools will have to employ them over unregistered people. However, the regulations will ensure that a school does not have to close simply because it cannot find a registered teacher where there is an unforeseen absence. Locating the provision in the Education Act rather than the Teaching Council Act emphasises the fact that this is primarily an employment, rather than a registration, issue. I hope that this provision need not be utilised as I am committed to having a fully registered profession. Ideally, the provision I am making should never be used.
It is the boards of management and principals of schools who make the day-to-day decisions on employing substitute teachers. This legislation does not require them to appoint unqualified people. However, if a principal or board were to be in a position where they feel they have no other alternative in the short term, and for a limited period, then the proposed change allows for the payment of the person out of the public purse. Without the change, the position is absolute and, therefore, not practicable.
When the Bill was published it provided for two other categories in which it would be permissible for schools to employ unregistered people. They were unqualified people who had obtained automatic registration with the Teaching Council in 2006 and had subsequently let this registration lapse and those whose registration with the council is pending at the time of their appointment. In light of union representations to me on this issue generally, I decided to remove these categories and, in so doing, I have limited the exception to being registered to the urgent, unforeseen and short-term needs of schools. This means that, outside of this situation, the Department or a VEC will be prohibited from paying anybody employed as a teacher unless he or she is registered with the Teaching Council.
Section 7 provides for the repeal of section 32 of the Education Act 1998. As part of the rationalisation of agencies in budget 2009, the Government decided there was no longer a need for a formal statutory committee to advise on educational disadvantage. Section 7 gives effect to this decision and provides for the repeal of section 32 of the Education Act 1998, thereby abolishing the Educational Disadvantage Committee. The committee was established under section 32 of the Education Act 1998 in order to advise the Minister on policies and strategies to be adopted to identify and correct educational disadvantage. Its final report, Moving Beyond Educational Disadvantage, was published in December of 2005. The report was a valuable input to the development of delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, with which Members are familiar. DEIS has provided, and will continue to provide, a structured and targeted approach to dealing with educational disadvantage.
More recently, the Educational Research Centre, ERC, in Drumcondra and the inspectorate in my Department have carried out an important evaluation of the DEIS scheme. Research published last January shows the DEIS programme is having a positive effect on tackling educational disadvantage. It also shows that improvement is taking place in the learning achievements of pupils in DEIS primary schools in urban areas. I am confident that the ERC and other research bodies will continue to provide the education system with much needed data on educational disadvantage and inform future policy decisions.
Section 8 provides for a procedural amendment of section 30 of the Teaching Council Act 2001 to cross-reference the amendment of section 24 of the Education Act 1998 as provided for in section 6 of the Bill and as outlined previously in this speech. Section 30 of the 2001 Act has not yet been commenced but it is my intention to activate it as soon as the President signs the legislation.
Section 9 provides for the amendment of section 33 of the Teaching Council Act 2001 to allow the Teaching Council to apply some level of conditionality on renewal of registration by teachers. On a previous occasion in this House there was discussion on the matter with Deputy O’Sullivan. As it stands, section 33 of the Teaching Council Act 2001 requires that a registered teacher pay the requisite annual fee in order to maintain registration status. However, it is desirable to make provision for certain conditions to be fulfilled by registered teachers in order to renew their annual registration. Other provisions existing in the 2001 Act to do with making applications on time and the effective date and term of the renewal are replicated in the amended section 33 now proposed.
The main purpose, therefore, of the amendment is to allow the Teaching Council to make regulations to impose such conditions. While the change provides for standard conditions to be set, such as the form and manner in which an application for renewal is made and the documentary and other evidence required to be submitted with the application, more importantly, the council may apply conditions such as the completion of programmes of continuing education and training, evidence of character, such as Garda clearance, and teaching experience.
This amendment provides for a progression towards a more robustly regulated profession and the furtherance of the objective of maintaining and improving teaching standards, including continual professional development. As many Deputies are aware, such qualitative conditions are already the norm in other professions and there is no reason for the teaching profession to be any different.
This is an enabling amendment and before the council can make any such regulation, my consent as the Minister for Education and Skills is required. Should the council propose regulations, they would be carefully considered by the Department in terms of their potential benefit to the education system, the burden that would be placed on individual teachers and any associated resource implication.
Section 10 provides for the amendment of section 38 of the Teaching Council Act 2001 to clarify a function of the Teaching Council in respect of programmes of teacher education and training provided by institutions of higher education and training. Section 38(1) states:
This may be interpreted as requiring the council to accredit all of the programmes that it reviews. To avoid doubt, the Bill contains a provision to allow the council to accredit programmes where it is appropriate to do so.
The council reviews new programmes presented to it for first accreditation as well as existing programmes. A number of reviews of existing programmes have already taken place. In all cases, the council has produced detailed reports that include a number of recommendations aimed at improving the programmes of study in question. These have been accepted and are being acted upon by the providers in question. However, should the council determine that a new or existing programme is not up to the high standard required of an initial teacher education programme, I want there to be no doubt that the council has the authority to withhold accreditation for that programme if it is right to do so.
Section 11 provides for the repeal of the Scientific and Technological Education (Investment) Fund Act 1997 and the Scientific and Technological Education (Investment) Fund (Amendment) Act 1998, as the fund has been fully spent and the provisions of the Acts are no longer required. The Acts are being repealed to end the requirement for the production of annual reports and accounts for a fund that is now defunct. The 1997 Act made financial resources available for the provision of education and vocational training in the fields of science and technology through the Scientific and Technological Education (Investment) Fund. The fund was disbursed by my Department between 1998 and 2010, inclusive.
Deputy Brendan Smith: I welcome the introduction of this legislation. We support the Bill overall, but there are a number of issues of concern in respect of which we will table amendments on Committee Stage.
There are several differences between this Bill and the one drafted by the Minister’s predecessor, Ms Mary Coughlan. For example, the Minister will be given the power to make directions in terms of redeployment following consultation, not agreement, with educational partners. As the Minister stated, this provision concerns many of those partners. Through our and, I hope, the Minister’s Committee Stage amendments, we want to ensure that a satisfactory resolution to the issue can be reached. While management bodies have some concerns that they will no longer have a veto on who is redeployed, the Bill does not affect their right to protect the ethos of their schools. This is an important and necessary matter.
We support the implementation of section 30 of the Teaching Council Act but we are concerned about the Bill’s provisions on allowing schools to hire unregistered teachers in certain circumstances. The days of having non-teachers teaching in schools should be over.
There is a significant and notable difference between this and the original Bill. I have a difficulty with the discontinuation of the section that provides for vocational education committees to be patrons of national schools. As someone who has served in VECs and has been active on various schools’ boards of management, I am aware of the important role played by the vocational education system throughout the country.
The Minister rightly established a forum on patronage. During the past decade in particular, there has been a diversification in patronage. This situation has evolved, given the high level of immigration as well as people’s desire for diversity in patronage. The establishment of the community national school model was desirable, in that it catered for parents’ wishes in respect of denominational, multi-denominational and non-denominational education within a single-patron framework. This was provided for in the 2010 legislation and I am disappointed that the Minister will not keep it in this Bill, despite the fact that he expects the report of the forum on patronage shortly. Including this provision would have sent a clear message to the forum concerning the diversity that is made available through the community national school model.
The Minister will have powers over the appointment, redeployment and dismissal of teachers. Under the Education Act 1998, these procedures must be agreed by the Minister and educational partners. Under this Bill, however, the procedures can be implemented following consultation rather than agreement. From a clear reading of the legislation, it appears that the agreement of the partners will no longer be required. Under the Bill, surplus teachers will be redeployed as per the commitment in the Croke Park agreement. In effect, the Bill places elements of that agreement into legislation.
While management bodies have expressed concern with this section and how it will affect their right to protect their schools’ ethos, schools remain protected in this regard. The Minister participated in the debates of recent weeks on the need to ensure that people can access schools of their choice. I am referring in particular to schools under the patronage of minority faiths. A teacher may be redeployed to a school with a different ethos, but this would cause no significant problems. In my constituency, people of certain denominations teach in schools of other denominations without problems arising.
The section on allowing the employment of unregistered teachers in certain limited circumstances is unnecessary in light of the significant number of unemployed teachers. A large number of qualified teachers, particularly young teachers, are in this unfortunate position. In the Upper House, Senator Power may have suggested to the Minister that he consider a ban on hiring retired teachers. This continues to be a problem for qualified, young graduates seeking work.
Deputy Brendan Smith: I appreciate that. Perhaps we can address the matter on Committee Stage. A substantial number of retired teachers are working in the system. Often, decision makers can take the easy option and hire experienced people who they know to be competent for two or three days, a few weeks or so on. When will the young person ever get a start? I hope we can make some progress on this issue in the context of this legislation.
Section 30 aims at ensuring that schools only employ teachers who are qualified and registered in accordance with the standards set by the Teaching Council. The section has never been implemented, with the result that schools are not under a statutory obligation to employ registered teachers. I welcome the commencement of this section.
The section will also allow the Teaching Council to make renewal of registration conditional on a number of factors, including continuing professional development. Bearing in mind the technological age in which we live, it is important to embed continued professional development. There is a clear need to maintain and assess professional development.
The Teaching Council Act 2001 provided a legislative framework for regulating the teaching profession and promoting teaching as a profession. The specific functions of the Teaching Council are varied and important. Its functions include maintaining a register of teachers, publishing codes of professional conduct on teaching knowledge, skills and competence, and maintaining and improving teaching standards. Since its establishment in 2006, it has focused on putting in place the register of teachers, publishing registration regulations, assessing non-standard teaching qualifications and managing Garda vetting of teachers. In 2009, it started the process of accrediting the 42 teacher education programmes in Ireland.
The Bill introduces redeployment of teachers into primary legislation for the first time. The statutory underpinning of an effective redeployment scheme will help to absorb surplus positions, thus leading to cost savings. Redeployment will take place in cases where a school is over quota, as outlined in the Croke Park agreement, or where a school closes, as agreed in Towards 2016. Under the legislation, a teacher will become an employee of the board of the school to which he or she is redeployed. Teachers may also be redeployed to a school with a different ethos.
While we support the commencement of section 30, we do not agree that it should be amended to allow for the paid employment of unregistered teachers in certain circumstances. The 2001 Act ensures that schools only employ teachers who are qualified and registered in accordance with the standards set by the Teaching Council. Section 30 also prohibits the payment of unregistered teachers. The section provides that qualified teachers who are not registered will be paid the unqualified rate of pay, thereby offering a financial incentive for qualified teachers to register with the council and abide by its professional standards.
Between January and March 2011, some 3,376 teachers were removed from the register. This does not mean they were unqualified, however, because they may have requested to be removed from the register on retirement or failed to pay their annual registration fees. Approximately 73,000 teachers are registered with the council.
Section 7 of the Bill has caused concern among teachers and educational partners. I welcome that the Minister also wants to make progress on certain of the issues arising in this regard. The Teaching Council has welcomed the publication of the Bill and, in particular, those provisions relating to mandatory registration because they will allow it to exercise its statutory role in full. The council is concerned, however, that the Bill as currently drafted includes a proposed amendment to the text of section 30 of the 2001 Act and qualifies that section by reference to section 24(7) of the Education Act, as amended. The proposed text of section 24(7) is intended to allow for the temporary employment in certain exceptional and limited circumstances of persons who are not registered teachers, if no registered teacher is available. The council has previously made known its opposition to such an exemption and remains of the view that there is neither a need nor is it desirable to amend section 30 in any way. It has communicated this view to the Minister. We will be unnecessarily providing for the employment of unregistered teachers. It is a common trait to take the easier option instead of exploring every opportunity for providing jobs for unemployed teachers of any age.
Unions have expressed their opposition to the revised section 24(8) of the Education Act, which provides for the employment of a person who is not a registered teacher in place of a registered teacher in particular circumstances. I hope the provision will be reversed on Committee Stage but if the Minister is minded to proceed, it must be accompanied by strict conditions.
Deputy Brendan Smith: Both principals and teachers have suggested to me that we should bring down the shutters on this provision. We all know that practical difficulties can arise in remote areas but I would prefer not to countenance the practice. If the Minister is minded to proceed with it, the circumstances under which it applies must be limited. I hope the practice will be non-existent.
I will run through the legislation briefly. While this is more a matter for Committee Stage, the word “may” in section 6 should be replaced by “shall”. Such a change would require the Minister to prescribe circumstances and conditions for the employment of a person in place of a registered teacher in circumstances where he or she was satisfied that it was necessary to do so in accordance with the terms of the Bill. The Bill as presented merely states that the Minister may prescribe circumstances and conditions. There is a concern that a person could be employed in place of a registered teacher without this being governed by strong ministerial regulations.
My concern over section 7 relates to the term “in a teaching position”. I would propose to delete “in a teaching position” and replace it with “in place of a registered teacher”. The reference to this person being employed in a teaching position is anomalous and inaccurate. The subsection provides that the Minister may require, in effect, prescribed qualification for such a person. People in teaching positions have their qualifications prescribed under the law by the Teaching Council, which has the responsibility under the terms of the European directive and the Teaching Council Act. While the Minister may be able to give a clear explanation on Committee Stage, it seems to me that the Minister cannot take on the responsibility of setting out qualifications for a person who is employed in a teaching position. We need that paragraph amended and I hope what I have proposed in layperson’s language can be addressed on Committee Stage.
Overall, I welcome the Bill and I hope we are in a position to address those few important issues. We will be supporting the Bill on Second Stage and we hope we will be able to work with the Minister to address the issues on Committee Stage. The message for all of us is to give newly qualified people or qualified people of working age the opportunities for any employment that may arise so that we have the qualified person in the classroom. Unfortunately today there are many qualified, eager, determined and committed people who do not have an opportunity to go into a classroom to teach. The obligation is on us as legislators to ensure that we set the parameters so that the qualified person gets the opportunity and that we are not taking back into the classroom retired people who have had their day in gainful employment. We need to give young people the opportunity to get working in the profession and get a full-time career as soon as possible.
Deputy Seán Crowe: It is a fairly technical Bill and the only way to deal with is by going through it section by section. The Bill paves the way for the commencement of section 30 of the Teaching Council Act, which when enacted will effectively mean that all teachers in State-recognised schools whose salaries are funded by the Department of Education and Skills must be registered with the Teaching Council. It also provides for the commencement of the remaining sections of the Teaching Council Act 2001, meaning registered teachers will be required to meet the council’s registration and ongoing professional education requirements, subject to the code of professional conduct and, as appropriate, the council’s fitness to teach process.
I also understand the Bill provides for the amendment of section 33 of the Teaching Council Act 2001 which relates to the annual renewal by teachers of their registration. This is probably the most controversial part of the Bill. The proposed amendment would allow the council to require teachers to submit certain evidence when renewing, which may include, for example, Garda vetting information or evidence of continuing professional development. When I raised this issue with the Minister, he indicated that approximately 30,000 of 73,000 teachers who are registered with the Teaching Council have been vetted to date. This leaves 43,000 teachers who are still awaiting clearance from the Garda central vetting unit. This chronic backlog has been caused by serious staffing shortages that have resulted in a build-up of unprocessed applications and is a matter that needs to be addressed. Having introduced a vetting process for people who are dealing with children or vulnerable adults, we need to put in the resources to implement that. I ask the Minister to address that issue.
Deputy Seán Crowe: Some of those would be teachers coming out of retirement. People at home listening to this might be concerned about their loved ones in that regard. The Minister said he accepted the Seanad amendment proposed by Senator Power relating to unregistered teachers and Garda vetting, which makes sense. We need to work out how that can be processed in a speedy manner. Even the previous Government was supposed to be addressing that matter and hopefully it will be addressed soon.
Section 6 drops the existing provisions in sections 23(1) and 24(3) of the Education Act which provides for consultation and agreement on certain matters. The INTO pointed out that the appointment procedures are currently agreed every four years when the rules and constitution of boards of management are reviewed and there has never been any difficulty with that consultation and agreement process which is of long standing. I ask the Minister to outline why this change has been made either on the conclusion of Second Stage or on Committee Stage.
The Bill also includes an amendment to section 38 of the Act which relates to the council’s role in reviewing and accrediting programmes of initial teacher education. The proposed amendment clarifies the council’s power to refuse or withdraw professional accreditation, where appropriate. Similarly, the INTO has also raised concerns that section 24(8) legitimises the employment in schools of persons without teaching qualifications, albeit in defined and limited circumstances. What will has happen to people working in Youthreach who have a craft background and are not fully qualified teachers? In the interim, I urge all practising teachers who are not registered with the council to apply for registration without delay.
The Bill also provides for the amendment of the Education Act 1998 and the amendment of the Teaching Council Act 2001 in a number of education matters. These include: clarification on the delivery of speech therapy services to students; the abolition of the Educational Disadvantage Committee; revised procedures for the appointment, suspension, dismissal and remuneration of teachers; and provision for the Teaching Council to make regulations to apply certain conditions to the renewal of registration of teachers.
The Act lists the planning and co-ordination of support services, including speech therapy services, as a function of the Minister for Education and Skills. While there is agreement at policy level that the HSE will provide such services, it is important that the proposed amendments to the Education Act 1998 are in a position to deliver speech therapy services to students of school-going age. As public representatives we are aware of the difficulties, the frustrations and the long, tortuous delays through which students and their parents have to go to get basic resources and supports, especially in the speech therapy area. We are also aware of the difficulty facing families who miss out for a certain period which results in the child dropping back and so on. We have probably all dealt with such situations over the years.
The legislative framework is to be regularised in accordance with what exists at present, that is to say, the provision of speech therapy services is a matter for the Health Service Executive. It is important that the provision of funding to the HSE to deliver such services is ring-fenced and used to provide essential health supports including speech and language therapy and occupational therapy to children. I understand that in some circumstances such therapy services are delivered in schools and the proposed amendment will not change this existing position.
Despite the fact that specific speech and language impairment, SSLI, is known to be a long-term disability, a continuum of provision is not available in Ireland. I am unsure why. A significant number of children continue to receive speech and language therapy in a local clinic after they return to their local school and many are allocated extra resource teaching hours.
There is agreement across the House that resources should follow the child. The trap door between junior and senior school must be removed. The hope of seeing this matter resolved appears to be a long way off but perhaps we can address this on Committee Stage. I realise the Minister is nodding his head in agreement on this matter. This problem exists and it would be fantastic if it could be addressed under this Bill.
One particular problem is the grey area surrounding what the existing provision covers and how pupils and schools are affected. If we are serious about addressing a child’s speech and language disorder through appropriate education and intensive speech and language therapy within the context of a broad and balanced primary school curriculum, then the emphasis must be on early intervention. There is a long-standing, misguided belief that SSLI is a short-term and largely resolvable condition. However, research into SSLI and professional practice have highlighted the long-term nature of the disorder. Consequently, attendance in a language class should be regarded as only one part of a child’s continuum of care. It is important to retain and develop a flexible system that can deliver the necessary supports for children with SSLI in a mainstream classroom setting. This means retaining a full-time teacher assigned to each class that operates with a ratio of 7:1 and, where necessary, a speech and language therapist should be available to provide therapy for the children in the class.
I understand the operation of section 40 of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs, EPSEN, Act 2004 will change if this legislation goes through and the Minister will not have the function of requesting the assistance of the relevant health authority in respect of planning, provision and co-ordination of support services. However, perhaps I am wrong about this.
The Minister has made the point in the past that the HSE has the responsibility for providing services but the trouble arises if the HSE does not adequately provide specialised support services, including language support and occupational therapy. Is it then the Minister’s responsibility to ensure services are provided and will this be weakened by the legislation? Perhaps not. If a child does not receive the adequate education, the buck stops with the Minister and the Government. I call on the Minister to offer some clarity in this regard.
It is important that children in hospital have access to adequate levels of support to ensure their specific needs are met. Under the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, each child assessed with a special educational need should have a personal education plan. However, the implementation of the assessment of need and individual education plans must be implemented. How will this affect a child in the hospital setting? I realise this is a specialised area but we must consider such circumstances when we introduce legislation. Changes took place recently with regard to the special education needs assistants and these changes did not necessarily concur with the needs of the children in that setting.
When the Minister’s party colleague, Senator Mary Moran, spoke on the Bill in the Seanad she welcomed the changes which will empower the Teaching Council of Ireland as a regulator. She pointed out the importance of ensuring that teachers who enter the profession are educated to the highest possible standards and that student teachers should receive the best possible preparation for their professional careers.
The Bill is before the House at a time when the Government is imposing cuts to a range of allowances and supports for teachers, especially those newly qualified. Teachers have already absorbed the non-payment of the last promised pay increase of 6%, the pension-related deduction of 7%, a pay cut of 6%, as well as the universal social charge, PRSI contributions and all the levies. Pay cuts amounting to 14% have been imposed on new teachers. These substantial reductions have made a considerable difference to teachers, many of whom are finding it remarkably difficult to make ends meet. The Minister would have heard these sentiments at the teacher’s conference recently. In return, teachers are doing more work and enabling the Exchequer to make substantial payroll savings. Redeployment has delivered savings of €60 million. Additional working hours have been implemented resulting in fewer school closures and better planning while more pupils are being taught by fewer staff.
As a result of the 2012 budget, teachers who enter teaching on or after 5 December 2011 will be subject to a cap on allowances equivalent to the honours degree allowance, currently at €4,426. Existing teachers who receive or have received additional qualifications, such as a master’s degree, on or after 5 December 2011 will not receive these additional allowances. A recently qualified teacher who contacted my office asked how the Department of Education and Skills, as an equal opportunities employer, could expect new entrants to the teaching profession to work under the same conditions as teachers who are paid 30% more. This reduction is unjustifiable and a move which depreciates and undervalues the quality of education undertaken by new entrants in comparison to those who have entered the profession in previous years. It is wrong that the Government is expecting new entrants from February 2012 to carry out the same duties while starting on a maximum salary some 30% less than what they would have earned had they been in a position to enter the system two years ago. These changes risk creating a two-tier teaching system — we already have a two-tier education system — and a sense of resentment and bitterness on the part of teachers who are not being paid a fair wage equal to that of their colleagues.
Another equally important matter that must be addressed is the practice of re-hiring retired teachers. My colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith, referred to the hiring of retired teachers to temporary teaching positions at a time when there is a shortage of teaching posts. This is yet another barrier that prevents newly qualified teachers from working in schools and gaining invaluable classroom experience. We have discussed the temporary nature of some of this work.
Teachers currently undertaking academic courses have a legitimate expectation to receive allowances that were available when they signed up for further study. There was an expectation in this regard and unfortunately that expectation has been dashed. The capping of teacher allowances is not only unfair, it will also have serious implications for the standards of teaching in our schools because it will discourage some teachers from engaging in further study. The Government is removing an important incentive for those working within the education sector to up-skill and it will be a major deterrent in the current economic climate because of the personal and financial commitments required by those undertaking higher education courses.
Having highly qualified teachers benefits the entire school community. High level qualifications are particularly valuable to teachers in light of the moratorium on posts of responsibility which has resulted in a suspension of promotional opportunities for the many primary and second level teachers. Clearly, this is yet another attack on young teachers entering the teaching profession, who earn approximately 14% less than their colleagues and will soon be forced to join an inferior pension scheme which will see them pay more towards their pensions than they will ever receive in pension benefits. This is a crazy scheme.
An equally harsh cut was the decision that school guidance counsellors will no longer be provided on an ex-quota basis in post-primary schools. This will result in a significant cut in the number of guidance hours in schools and force some teachers back into the classroom as subject teachers. The loss of guidance counselling comes at a time when there has been an alarming rise in the rate of suicides, self-harm and depression among young people and when schools are finding it difficult to address issues arising from bullying in the classroom. Students will find it difficult to access one-to-one counselling support for a wide range of personal problems, such as issues relating to self-esteem, family breakdown, mental health, bereavement, stress and sexuality. Vulnerable young people will be placed at even greater risk. This is a decision that is difficult to justify.
One of the most contentious measures in the 2012 budget was the change to the staffing levels for one, two, three and four-teacher schools. A primary school teacher in the Taoiseach’s own constituency accused the Government of overseeing education cuts that would lead to a “scorched earth” policy in rural Ireland. He also correctly asserted that school children and rural communities were more important than the bondholders of Europe, the €70 million EU Presidency bill or the €28 million legal bill for NAMA. Alternatives to closures and amalgamations must be considered along with the possibility of repopulating existing schools rather than constantly expanding already larger schools, often with unsuitable temporary accommodation.
I urge the Minister to recognise the importance of small schools in rural Ireland. Financial concerns taken in isolation cannot be the sole reason governing a small school’s viability and must be counterbalanced by many other considerations. A further consideration is that schools may find it impossible to fulfil their obligations under section 9(c) of the 1998 Education Act which requires that guidance services be provided in schools and that students should have access to appropriate guidance to assist them in their educational and career choices.
The Minister mentioned that the educational research centre, ERC, in Drumcondra and the inspectorate had carried out important work with regard to the DEIS programme and he himself has said the DEIS programme has had a positive effect on tackling educational disadvantage.
Deputy Seán Crowe: Recently, I raised the issue of the changes at Question Time, particularly those that affect programmes like Breaking the Cycle and the pupil teacher ratio of 15:1 for disadvantaged schools. The Minister said originally that the ratio might be moved to 18:1, but the website shows it is moving to 20:1. Will the Minister come back to me on that issue? The big concern is that if the ratio moves from 15:1 to 18:1, we may be able to squeeze the extra children into the classrooms, although the classrooms have been designed specifically for a ratio of 15:1. However, if the ratio moves to 20:1, I do not know how that will be accommodated. There will be significant costs in that regard.
We have spoken about DEIS and we are aware that it was never about savings, but was about dismantling barriers? I ask that the Minister come back to me with regard to whatever proposals he has about schools that fit all the criteria for DEIS. This is something that must be addressed if we are to deal with disadvantage and unfairness within the system. We must deal with the issue of the schools that fit the criteria but which, for financial reasons or whatever, cannot gain recognition to be part of the DEIS programme. Many of these schools will have been affected by the budget changes on this. One school in my area, St. Mary’s, will possibly lose five teachers, although it probably fits the criteria for DEIS. As an outsider, I see it as fitting all the criteria on the basis of need, etc.
The Bill brings much positive change and most of us are broadly in favour of the changes being made. I suppose some parts of the Bill will be tweaked and perhaps we can go through the issues on Committee Stage when dealing with amendments and perhaps we will make better sense then of some of the issues I have raised in this lengthy speech. I apologise to those listeners at home whom I have put to sleep.
Acting Chairman (Deputy Joanna Tuffy): The next contributor is Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan. I understand she is sharing her time with Deputies Catherine Murphy and John Halligan. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan: I am very struck by what this Bill sets out to do, namely, to facilitate reform within the education sector, enhance service delivery and achieve cost savings. A note I would make is that there is always a danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water. By that, I refer to introducing change for the sake of it and trying to reform something that does not need reform.
On the issue of achieving cost savings, I suggested to the Minister last week or the week previously how to recoup €5 million or €6 million from the loan the previous Government made to the Teaching Council. I am sure the Minister has the wherewithal and the means to recoup those moneys, which could be put to much better use. I also suggest there was an appalling waste of money involved in the supervision and substitution scheme. Astronomical amounts of money went into that scheme, which was instituted by the previous Government. This scheme was introduced at a time when many schools had systems in place to deal with teacher absence, whether as a result of illness or due to taking classes to an event. I and most teachers believed there were far simpler solutions at a fraction of the cost. The basic principle of the scheme was that a teacher signed up for it and was available to supervise. There were times I was available to supervise, but was not needed. However, I was still paid. The inordinate bureaucracy the scheme placed on schools was also appalling. Prior to the scheme, the school I taught in had a very good system to cover absence. Every period was covered and much of the coverage was done voluntarily, such was the goodwill among the staff.
On the issue of enhancing service delivery, teachers, like all professionals range from good to bad and from excellent to poor. I do not go along with the saying that “He who can does, and he who cannot teaches”. As a profession, teachers are maligned; they have that in common with us now. They are maligned in particular by certain sections of the media. Some of these only see the holidays and the shorter hours of teachers and when teachers try to explain what they do, they are on a hiding to nothing.
I would like to use some of my time to acknowledge the commitment, dedication and hard work of teachers at primary and second level, both in and outside of the classroom. I also acknowledge the range of extra curricular activities that go on, whether sports, drama, theatre visits, debating, participation in the Young Scientist exhibition, quizzes, visits to places of interest, competitions and field trips, etc. Many of these out of school activities involve teachers and are organised by teachers. None of them happens at the click of a finger and they are additional to the normal work of teachers. The clause in the Croke Park agreement regarding the additional hour per week required of teachers was insulting to those teachers who put in many additional hours voluntarily. I know these “forced hours” are detrimental and are causing difficulties in some schools. Teachers have also been very flexible. They have been very involved in the many changes that have come about. I refer to the curricular changes and the new courses and initiatives that have been introduced, in some cases without in-service support. Such initiatives include the Walk Tall programme and the On My Own Two Feet educational package. There have been changes in the syllabus, including the introduction of subjects like civic, social and political education and social, personal and health education.
Teachers have proven that they can cope with the range of abilities and the learning and behavioural difficulties in each group. As a teacher, one has to play the role of a teacher, a parent and a social worker. One spends most of the day playing the part of “Judge Judy”. When social issues like drugs, alcohol, smoking and driving come up, there is an assumption that the schools will look after them. Although teachers embrace this aspect of their roles, there are limits because their basic job is to teach a curriculum.
We could paper the walls of all of our schools with the policies and plans that have been imposed on teachers. The time it takes to deal with them is not available for engaging with young people in the classroom. Teachers are getting on with it, however, because it is a wonderful career. Statistics relating to CAO applications indicate that teaching, as a career, is still in high demand. Studies have shown that there continues to be a high level of satisfaction with this career among teachers. Other countries, by contrast, are finding it difficult to maintain the status of the profession.
I would like to speak about the Teaching Council, which is one of my favourite topics. Like most teachers I know, I have many issues with the council. In most cases, the first engagement we had with the council was a letter threatening that our salaries would not be paid unless we signed up to the Teaching Council. The letter was sent out at a time when the legislation had not yet been passed. Therefore, the council was acting in a manner that was illegal and totally wrong. It started off on the wrong footing.
I have already mentioned the €90 fee. It is wrong that the fee has to be paid regardless of whether one is a full-time teacher, one teaches for two hours a week, or one wants to get a job interview. The Teaching Council has been putting in place a register of teachers since it was established in 2006, but it still has not got it right. The Department of Education and Skills had been dealing with professional qualifications since the foundation of the State. I was bemused to read that the council will have a function in determining fitness to teach. On the basis of what I have seen of its work, I suggest it should start by working on its own fitness to practice.
I have examined what the Teaching Council has been doing since 2006. I have yet to meet a teacher who has had a positive engagement or experience with the council, or who believes the €90 charge is worth it. Perhaps I will be inundated with e-mails from teachers saying I am wrong. Anybody I know who is involved in teaching at primary or secondary level does not have a word of praise for the council. That cannot be attributed solely to the €90 fee.
The Teaching Council had an income of more than €6 million in each of 2009 and 2010. Its staff, who are doing work that used to be done by officials in the Department of Education and Skills, accounted for costs of almost €2 million in each of those years. The council’s administration costs were approximately €750,000 and its additional information technology costs were approximately €250,000. It spent some €500,000 on communications and education costs. I wonder what the council has been doing for teachers.
As I have mentioned, the main event the Teaching Council engaged in last year seemed to involve seeking a major salary increase for the outgoing director, who wanted a 20% pay rise to increase her pension and lump sum on retirement. Twenty-four members of the council voted for it and four voted against it. Thankfully, the Department of Education and Skills vetoed the increase. It had to ask for copies of the mathematics survey. It is supposed to have all of that information. I note from its website that it wants teachers to make submissions on various matters. Does it not have any idea of the workload of teachers?
I wish to speak about the expenses incurred by the members of the Teaching Council. Its meetings generally take place in Maynooth. In 2010, one member received €11,000 and ten members received over €5,000. The bigger the car, the bigger the expense. We know what that is doing for the environment. The council has an executive committee, an investigations committee, a disciplinary committee, a regulation committee, a finance committee, an education committee, an audit committee, an evidence of character panel, a primary applications panel and a post-primary applications panel. No wonder it took six years and over €5 million to establish the council.
The Teaching Council held its first conference in November 2011. I have examined the agenda for this two-day event. I would have liked to have been there because it seems interesting. I can imagine the expenses that were accrued by the third level lecturers, all of whom are paid in their country of origin, who spoke at the conference. The lecturers in question came from Ireland, England, Boston College, the University of Lapland, the University of Malta, Spain and Scotland. All of their expenses were paid. It was all very interesting. I am sure the council’s staff of almost 30 officials, each of whom is paid an average salary of approximately €41,000, were needed to sort out all of the expense claims.
I would like to refer to what teachers have said about the Teaching Council. It has been described as a “useless regulatory body” that provides jobs for the boys and for the unions. It has been suggested that it has had “absolutely no impact” on the teaching profession. It has been claimed that the council is an “expensive, pointless self-serving bureaucracy” that accomplishes nothing that is not “already being done better elsewhere”, including in the Department of Education and Skills. When a teacher pays the €90 fee, he or she gets a piece or paper saying that he or she is a teacher. We know that already. The teacher then has to send in a certificate of qualification to the council, even though that has already been vetted by the relevant awarding body to prove the person in question is a teacher. It is a catch-22 if ever there was one.
I wish to speak about the role of in-service. I belong to the associations of English and history teachers, both of which are great organisations. The seminars and expertise they provide as part of the in-service process are absolutely fabulous. The organisations know who to get because they are run by teachers.
I will pick up on some of the other points the Minister made in his opening speech. I remind him, in response to what he said about qualified and registered teachers, that being unregistered does not mean being unqualified. I am glad the Minister is making provision and providing leeway for schools to employ qualified but unregistered teachers. It is a practical approach. I do not see why such teachers should be paid less, however.
I can give an example of the need to cater for the short-term needs of schools. A friend of mine who had retired was needed by a school for a particular piece of work that could not be done by anyone else. Obviously, she had not paid the registration fee. After she had gone through the hassle of getting registered, she had to go through more hassle with Garda vetting because the vetting she already had did not suit the vetting requirements of the Teaching Council. She had to contend with layer after layer of work.
I wish to speak about the matter of redeployment. If a school is over quota, I do not think it should be a case of “last in, first out”. The subject requirements of the school have to be taken into account.
I note that this legislation will give increased powers to the Minister. I presume he will use them wisely. I listened to what he said about consultation, agreement and discussion with the education partners. I firmly believe it is time to have discussions with teachers — those who are actively engaged in the classroom and know what is going on. The education partners are sometimes removed from that. They do not know the realities and the practicalities.
The Minister has acknowledged that the DEIS scheme is having a positive effect on educational disadvantage. I agree with his point that there are disadvantaged students and students from disadvantaged areas in other schools as well. We cannot lose sight of them when we are talking about DEIS schools.
I would like to speak about boards of management. Having been a teacher representative on a board of management, and as a current chairperson of another board, I think more leeway and more direction are needed in this regard.
I will conclude by mentioning a conference on anti-social behaviour that I attended this morning. It was organised by the Minister’s colleague, the Lord Mayor of Dublin. The excellent papers that were delivered at the conference were geared towards the connection between learning and behaviour. I suggest it would be important for the Minister to consider the examples of really good practice that were cited at the conference.
Deputy Catherine Murphy: Having often found myself explaining our system of school patronage to people, I decided to participate in a history session to understand it better. Much of what I learned about predates the foundation of the State. Our system is not at all obvious. One of its advantages is that it offers choices, but it also has disadvantages. Attention has been drawn to the fact that most schools are vested in private bodies even though in most cases they are regarded as part of the public system. That can bring its own difficulties. There is no real choice if the schools in one’s catchment area are over-subscribed, as is the case in most areas. All of the secondary schools in my constituency are well over-subscribed. The ones that have flexibility are drawing students from a wider catchment area. The reality is that if one really wants to go to a co-educational school, but the school in one’s area is not co-educational, one does not have a choice if the school of one’s choice is in an area that is over-subscribed.
The notion of choice is not really available for many people. The Bill provides for the redeployment of teachers but in my view this may be difficult in cases where the ethos and the patronage of schools is very different. The education system is very varied and it can be particularly varied depending on the part of the country.
One of my concerns is with regard to the provisions in the Bill for the redeployment of teachers and I refer to the statistics made available to us. I wish to draw attention to a problematic matter which occurs in fast-growing areas, including the area I represent. I refer to the use of a historical model for calculating the number of school places required. The census information is not used in this calculation. A school is required to demonstrate the number of children it will have but this must be provided a year in advance——
Deputy Catherine Murphy: I am referring to primary level. Class sizes in schools in these areas are always proportionately larger than the national average. Therefore, the use of the historical model for calculating school numbers needs to be questioned if one wishes to have a fair system, in particular where there are large class sizes and where there is a need for expertise for dealing with children with disabilities but this may not be available. I predict that some areas will be disadvantaged by virtue of the growth in those areas.
The Bill will determine the responsibility for speech and language therapy. However, the practical delivery of this service is a different matter. I ask if the Minister has talked to the HSE about those therapies. The services are threadbare and the lopsided nature of them can mean that a child’s address determines whether that service is available to a child in that particular area. For example, a few years ago, I asked for the figures on the distribution and waiting times for speech and language therapy services. There was a waiting time of two months in one part of the country while it was two and a half years in another part of the country. A three year old child requiring speech and language therapy who must wait on a list for therapy until the age of five, starts school with an automatic disadvantage and the remediation needed is then significantly different. The statutory responsibility is one aspect but the delivery is an entirely different matter and this depends on a fair distribution of that expertise.
I have concerns about the equal opportunities for teachers as regards the new system. In the past, it was an advantage to teachers to acquire further qualifications in areas such as maths and science, for example. I am concerned that teachers would be discouraged from acquiring the kind of skills we will need in schools.
I refer to the provision in the Bill regarding the Department being in a position to dismiss teachers. I will deal with this provision on Committee Stage. The Bill provides that procedures will be established following consultation with the relevant stakeholders rather than requiring agreement. This worries me although I acknowledge this is in the context of the Croke Park agreement because one must be certain of what is involved in any case of dismissal to ensure fairness and to avoid any difficulties of the sort that happened years ago when a teacher did not fit in with the ethos of a school. I would not like to see a provision that could produce unintended results.
An unregistered teacher is not necessarily an unqualified teacher. Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan got a lot off her chest in her contribution and we had a discussion earlier on this matter. There has to be some flexibility and I do not disagree but we must ensure that the child or the student is always central and teaching qualifications are important in setting standards. I accept this point but I ask that the flexibility be included.
The Minister will receive a report on school patronage in the near future. This issue is of interest in my area because of a new school to be sited very close to my home which is being discussed very robustly within the community. There is a number of options in which parents are expressing an interest, such as an all-Irish secondary school or a dual junior and senior cycle for the VEC Maynooth which is a very successful school. However, these options seem to be off the table before the decision is made, according to the information we have received, and this would be regrettable. If this were to be the case, the question of parental choice in determining the patronage of a school would be taken away. I will send the Minister a note on that point.
Deputy John Halligan: Aspects of this Bill are necessary and welcome, particularly with regard to conditions for the registration and reregistration of teachers and for giving the Teaching Council the powers it needs to ensure the pre-service training is up to scratch. I am in favour of giving teachers the opportunity to update their skills and to embrace new technologies throughout their careers. I also welcome the Minister’s commitment to support the co-ordinated delivery of services to families of children with special educational needs, given the cuts in the SNA resources and particularly in the reduction of the special needs assistance hours by the Government. I am glad to hear the provisions will not impact on the availability of speech therapy services for children with special educational needs which are provided through the HSE. I would welcome an undertaking from the Minister that the provision of services such as speech and language and occupational, vocational and behavioural therapies, will be made available to children in a timely manner.
The Bill provides for the employment of unqualified teachers in certain circumstances, such as to meet urgent staffing needs. I urge the Minister to put in place a provision that a school can only do so when it has exhausted all other possibilities. This is what teachers have said to me and I am sure they have made that point to the Minister. I appreciate this may be necessary in certain exceptional circumstances when it comes to requiring trained substitute teachers at short notice. However, with the large number of newly qualified and unemployed teachers, I have a problem in believing that this is necessary. I am informed approximately 1,600 people qualified as secondary teachers this year. A survey undertaken by the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, ASTI, showed that hundreds who graduated this year have emigrated or changed their careers because of the lack of job opportunities. Teachers will say that newly qualified teachers face a kind of catch-22 scenario in that they cannot secure full-time employment without experience and they cannot get experience unless they get a job, and I know the Minister has spoken on this. As he knows, because of that, many young teachers have emigrated in the hope of acquiring teaching work. I know many young teachers who have done that. Would the Minister consider establishing a database for unemployed qualified teachers and making it available to every school in the country? I do not believe there would be a big cost factor. It would be available to every principal who finds himself or herself in need of a short-term teacher. I have no doubt a young graduate would welcome any teaching opportunity he or she could be given, even a couple of days.
Deputy John Halligan: However it is done, maybe the Minister could advocate that. Setting up a database would help because sometimes the argument made is that a teacher could not be found, and the Minister knows that.
I refer to retired teachers. The Minister knows this is an issue. I find it illogical and wholly inequitable that hundreds of retired teachers continue to work in the education system while countless new graduates cannot find work.
Deputy John Halligan: I know that, but Deputy Quinn is the Minister for Education and Skills. He might use his influence in this regard. In one month last year, statistics showed that 335 retired individuals were on the education payroll and yet our young teachers are going to the United Kingdom, Canada and Singapore. They are sought after in these countries. As the Minister knows, many of them will never return. This is a big issue with many teachers who find they cannot get employment but who know of retired teachers in employment. I am not arguing against anybody working, whether retired or not, but I make the point that many of those retired teachers have pensions. It is not as if they need the work as an unemployed teacher does.
Deputy John Halligan: They are the main points I wanted to make. It is very wrong to spend so much time and money at university only to graduate and find one cannot get a job. The daughter of a friend of mine has gone to New Zealand for work. She is a highly qualified secondary school teacher who was getting two days or three days work here and there. What made her angry was that there were retired teachers on pensions working in some of the schools in which she got part-time work.
The Minister might look at establishing a database or, as he said, get the Teaching Council to establish one. As has been called for in the House over the years, will the Minister once and for all deal with retired teachers on pensions who are brought back into the system at the expense of young graduates?
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Education (Amendment) Bill 2012, which is broadly supported and perhaps not as contentious as other issues we have been debating. I welcome that the changes are designed to provide legal certainty in regard to the capacity of the Minister for Education and Skills and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to ensure redeployment arrangements for teachers continue to meet, in a fully effective manner, the requirement of the current fiscal situation and that teachers who are surplus are deployed to vacancies in other schools while at the same time ensuring the Department can continue to fully honour the commitment in the Croke Park agreement which provides for flexible arrangements instead of redundancy. This is one of the most important elements of the Croke Park agreement which has perhaps been overlooked by some who seek to look only at one side of it. It is an area where we will start to see the other side of the Croke Park agreement, namely, efficiencies and redeployment coming into play.
I refer briefly to the Minister’s speech earlier this evening and previously in the Seanad in which he reaffirmed his commitment to DEIS. In the city part of my constituency of Cork North-Central, only two primary schools are not DEIS schools. I have had a significant amount of engagement over the past number of months. It is extremely refreshing that we have a Minister who engaged with the process and who listened in a very measured fashion to some of the debate on disadvantage and disadvantaged schools. It is extremely welcome that commitment was mentioned again this evening. It is also reassuring that the Government is looking so decisively and productively at the issue of how we, as a society, deal with our most disadvantaged children. As a politician, I was struck by the fact that many of the schools put forward very strong arguments through their teaching staff. Unlike other issues with which we deal as politicians, the lobbying from some of the schools, in particular in the more disadvantaged areas, was quite muted which proved that, as politicians, we have a responsibility to protect as many schemes as we can which deal with disadvantage.
One of the other main provisions in the Bill concerns the employment, in certain exceptional and limited circumstances, of persons who are not registered teachers under the Teaching Council Act 2001. I wish to bring to the Minister’s attention the case of the COPE Foundation in Cork and other such schools. Teaching is a varied profession and teachers deal with a very broad range of students. I am not sure if the Minister is aware of the COPE Foundation in Cork, an organisation of which we are extremely proud. It deals with people with a range of physical and intellectual difficulties. The principal of one of the primary schools, which I will not name and which deals with children with very serious physical difficulties, made the case to me that she must employ teachers from the lists provided and the contracts that exist, but that many of those teachers would be incapable of performing some of the jobs done by her teachers. By virtue of their employment, they have effectively become teaching and nursing staff. It involves a particular vocation given the difficulties many of the young people have. I hope that when the Minister talks of exceptional and limited circumstances he, or any subsequent Minister, will have regard to areas such as this.
What commends the Bill to me is the degree to which a veto will be removed from decisions which require to be taken. In other words, agreement in all cases will be changed so that one person or one group will be disallowed from vetoing a decision which may be in the best interests of the educational needs of a school or young person.
The Bill makes a clear statement on, and commitment to, training and education and ensuring our teachers and staff feel there is a benefit to becoming as qualified as possible. In circumstances where there is local pressure or legacy issues, they will recruit on the basis of qualification and expertise. This is good news for young people entering the teaching profession. In appointing a full Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to the Cabinet, the Government has displayed great ambition in how it seeks to look after young people. The measures in the Bill must be welcomed.
Despite the changes in 1998, clarification for the delivery of speech therapy services and other health and personal services to students of school going age is welcome. The proposed provisions will not impact on the availability of speech therapy and other services. No services will be lost and every service being delivered will continue to be delivered, even if there is some change between the relationship of the Department of Education and Skills to the Departments of Health and Children and Youth Affairs. I commend the Bill and congratulate the Minister on bringing it forward.
Deputy Brian Walsh: I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this Bill, which is reforming in its aims and common sense in its application. It pursues the stated policy goal of ensuring all teachers in our education system are appropriately qualified and subject to regulation and oversight by the Teaching Council but its provisions are tempered by reason. It recognises the contribution made by experienced unregistered teachers in the past and the fact that circumstances will arise where they can make a contribution to the education of our young people. The requirement for teachers to register with the Teaching Council ensures those entrusted with responsibility for our children’s education have attained a satisfactory professional qualification and adequate training for the best possible service delivery. The move towards a schooling system staffed with qualified, registered teachers assures us of high standards and greater accountability in the classroom. It will also offer hope to a large cohort of recently qualified teachers, whose pathway to work was impeded by the retention of unregistered, unqualified or retired personnel.
It is necessary to take cognisance, as the Bill does, of people’s employment rights and the limited circumstances in which experienced teachers who are not registered with the Teaching Council can play an important role in the provision of education. In rural schools in remote locations, difficulties can arise in identifying and recruiting a suitably qualified teacher at short notice. Demographic projections indicate the primary school population will increase by 70,000 over the next five or six years. It is possible there will be a shortage of qualified candidates, resulting in difficulty in filling a vacant post. It would be wrong for the provisions of legislation to dictate that such positions should remain unfilled in the absence of a transitional solution. For this reason, a number of exceptions have been included in the Bill through which unregistered teachers can be deployed.
In most cases, the ownership and trusteeship of primary and post-primary schools in Ireland are vested in private bodies even though nearly all are dependent on State funds. They are also all subject to State regulation and observant of State curricula. Our schooling system is therefore correctly regarded as being public. Heretofore, the authority of the Minister in the appointment, deployment and dismissal of teachers and principals has been diminished by the requirement on the Minister to obtain the agreement of school patrons, management bodies and unions in the execution of any of these actions. Our children’s education is too important to be regulated at arms length and I welcome the fact that this Bill proposes to bring reform to the area. The legislation rightly dispenses with the requirement that the Minister must attain the agreement of interested parties and instead requires that he or she engage in consultation with stakeholders over appointments, redeployment or dismissals.
Perhaps the greatest significance of the Bill is the manner in which it facilitates reform and reflects the commitment in the public sector to increase flexibility in the interest of securing costs savings and efficiency. Deputy Dara Murphy spoke about the Croke Park agreement, which is an important aspect of the Bill in the context of the Minister’s annual budget, 80% of which is pay related. It is important that the Bill can facilitate reform of this area and best use of limited resources. Where teachers are surplus to the needs of the school, they can be deployed in order to meet the needs of another school. Surplus positions can be absorbed, leading to savings through more prudent use of resources. The State has a legal responsibility to provide for the education of its children and a moral responsibility, as well as an economic interest, to ensure education is of the best standard possible. The Bill recognises and embraces that responsibility and I commend the Minister for bringing it before the House.
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