Thursday, 1 March 2012
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy John Browne: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Education is very much to the forefront in recent weeks following the Minister’s announcements on various aspects of education. In my county we have had public meetings about teacher numbers and DEIS schools and there will be further public meetings next week at which people will express concern at the cuts proposed by the Minister.
The Bill has one significant difference to the Education (Amendment) Bill 2010, which was introduced by the then Minister, Ms Mary Coughlan, which failed to pass following the dissolution of the Dáil in 2011. As is his right, the Minister was entitled to re-examine the Bill and come up with his own ideas. The most obvious difference is the section relating to the power of the Minister on the appointment, redeployment and dismissal of teachers. Under the Education Act 1998 those procedures had to be agreed with the Minister and the education partners. However, the Bill stipulates that the procedures can be established following consultation rather than agreement. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the position during his reply. It seems strange that the agreement of the partners will no longer be required. The Minister has evidently given some thought to the issue and I am sure he will be able to explain the reason for the change in the procedure from the 1998 Act.
The Bill provides that teachers who are surplus will be redeployed, as per the commitment in the Croke Park agreement. It therefore places elements of the Croke Park agreement into the legislation. While managing bodies have expressed concern with the section and how it will affect their right to protect their school ethos, we believe schools are still protected in that regard. It is true that teachers may be redeployed to schools with a different ethos but I hope that would not cause significant problems. Perhaps the Minister would reiterate the discussions he had in that regard with school management groups and the various teachers’ organisations.
The sections which allow the employment of unregistered teachers in certain limited circumstances are unnecessary in light of the significant number of unemployed teachers. We also believe that the Minister should consider a ban on hiring retired teachers. That continues to be a problem for qualified, young graduates seeking work. Perhaps the Minister will clarify how many retired teachers are currently working in schools. That has been a big bone of contention for young teachers throughout my political life. Young teachers find it difficult to acquire work yet in many cases retired teachers are quickly back at work. It may have been necessary to employ retired teachers in the past but it should not be happening currently given the number of unemployed teachers.
On many occasions I have received representations from young teachers and their parents about the lack of teaching posts, either temporary or full time, yet retired teachers are returning to the classroom. In the current climate of high unemployment it would be far better if young graduate teachers were employed even on a part-time basis. They could put their skills and ability to use in this country.
Deputy John Browne: Dubai and other such countries offer big salaries to Irish teachers who go there to work. That would be a pity. Graduate teachers are highly talented and skilled. In the past month five young teachers came to see me to find out whether they could get part-time work in schools in the county or even within the country. A number of years ago schools found it difficult to find qualified teachers at short notice but that is no longer the case.
Section 30 is mainly concerned with ensuring 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 and there has therefore never been a statutory obligation to employ registered teachers.
There are some positives in the Bill. The section which will allow the Teaching Council to make a renewal of registration conditional on a number of factors including continuing professional development is important for improving the standards of the profession. Section 24(5) of the 1998 Act, as inserted by section 6 of the Bill, introduces the redeployment of teachers into primary legislation for the first time. It states that statutory underpinning of an effective redeployment scheme will help ensure that surplus positions are absorbed in the schools sector leading to cost savings. Redeployment will take place in cases where a school is over quota, as outlined in the Croke Park agreement, and also in the case of school closures as agreed in the social partnership agreement terms 2016. Under the Bill, when a teacher is redeployed it means he or she will become an employee of the board of the school to which he or she is sent. Teachers may also be redeployed to a school with a different ethos.
The previous and current Ministers have put much thought and effort into producing the Bill. Based on the representations made to me, the one area that is of concern is the exclusion of the need for agreement on procedures. Perhaps the Minister would explain the reduction in the number of teachers that will take place in schools because of the changes made to the pupil-teacher ratio and in DEIS schools. What will happen to those teachers? There is a major concern within the profession and among parents.
As the Minister is aware, many public meetings have been held around the country. We have been summoned to one next week in County Wexford to explain the situation and to get a lashing for the Minister’s decisions. To highlight the situation, all of the county’s Oireachtas Members have been invited to a meeting in Bree where between 300 and 400 people, from teachers to parents, are expected to attend. I am sure that they will also bring some students.
The concern is that small school areas will be particularly affected. Wexford does not have as many small schools as other parts of the country but people are concerned that the number we have will lose some of their teachers and be unable to provide the standard of education required by parents and students. The Minister has made a few changes but he should reflect further on the road he is taking in respect of small schools, particularly given the seriousness of the situation that is developing in rural areas. It will affect the future education ofchildren.
At a time when the rate of unemployment is so high it is important that we provide people with the best education. We must encourage young people to attain a high level of primary, secondary and third level education. In my day, someone with a leaving certificate could walk into just about any job. Now, one needs a masters degree to get many of the jobs that are vacant. People who do not have the necessary qualifications or levels of education have few opportunities.
The Minister and his colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, share responsibility for what was the old FÁS. My county was dependent on the building industry and its high payment levels prompted a significant number of young people to leave school at 15 or 16 years of age.
Deputy John Browne: The late Mr. Rory Murphy instigated the schemes and the Minister visited the county to approve them. The first ever FÁS group worked in the Irish National Heritage Park in Wexford.
We need to think outside the box. The Minister and his colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, are making a number of changes but I hope that they will be in a position to introduce new schemes that target the large number of young people who are on the dole in Wexford and provide them with reskilling and retraining so that they might avail of other opportunities. Will the Minister give serious consideration to this proposal?
Deputy Charlie McConalogue: I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this Bill and education generally. Education is one of the most important issues we must address, particularly given the need to protect it at a time when finances are so tight. I will use this opportunity to discuss with the Minister some of the measures he is taking. I hope that he will be able to respond to my points.
Regarding the Minister’s approach to DEIS schools, I welcome his decision to reverse the cuts to band 1 and band 2 schools. As he acknowledged, those cuts needed to be undone. They affected many disadvantaged students and undid work that had made a significant impact in the schools in question, in that children who needed extra attention during their early years of development were given it. The work ensured a higher level of school continuance from primary to secondary level. I have seen its benefits in many of the schools in my area. The situation was made clear to the Minister through the many submissions made to him by the schools as part of the review process.
It is incomprehensible that in reversing the cuts to DEIS band 1 and band 2 schools, the Minister did not adopt the same approach towards rural DEIS schools and allow them to retain their legacy posts, which are as important to those schools as they are to band 1 and band 2 schools. After accepting that he had made a mistake and agreeing to review the situation, he did not reverse the decision in respect of 45% of the posts in question, which means they will be lost in September. That does not make sense. I understand the financial implications and the pressures being placed on the Minister, but it does not add up that a band 2 school in an urban area will retain teachers whereas a school a few miles away in a rural area — I am aware of many such schools that are even more disadvantaged — will not.
This flies in the face of many of the Minister’s comments on the review. His argument concerns the finances but his decision to reverse the cuts should have been applied to every DEIS school. That cuts now target rural schools in particular is unfair. In many rural areas, the level of disadvantage is higher than it is in urban areas. They should have received similar treatment.
I am concerned by the level of consistency between the Minister’s approach to this matter and his approach to the budget. Many of the cuts he sought were directed at rural and smaller schools. He has reduced the pupil-teacher ratio that will be required during the next three years for those schools to retain their posts. Scoil Colmcille in Glengad in north County Donegal is a five-teacher school that will become a three-teacher school. It will lose a legacy post due to the DEIS cuts and a second post as a result of the changes in the pupil-teacher ratio. It was due to retain the second post but backdating the budgetary change means it is in line to lose a mainstream teacher. All of this is happening despite the fact that its pupil numbers will increase in September.
The Minister has announced an appeals system for schools whose pupil numbers will increase in September. I hope that, given the significant increase at Scoil Colmcille, it will maintain its mainstream post. To this end, I urge the Minister to give the matter the utmost attention in his review. In light of the Minister’s partial reverse, it is disappointing that the school has lost its DEIS post. The impact of the programme on the school has been exceptional. The school has submitted a report to the Minister based on its research on retention rates at secondary level of students who graduated from it. The learning supports and reductions in pupil-teacher ratios made possible by DEIS have resulted in students remaining in education until leaving certificate level and beyond to third level.
The policy of allocating teachers based on student enrolment in the preceding year results in an inconsistency that needs to be addressed. The Minister should consider introducing an appeals system for schools which are due to lose a teacher despite increased enrolment in the current year because they need to be able to maintain their allocation. Yesterday, I met representatives from Rathshenny national school, which is due to lose a teacher next September because its enrolment was slightly below the threshold for their current allocation. However, its enrolment will increase by nine students in the coming year. It does not make sense to reduce teacher numbers in a school where student enrolment is increasing. These schools will end up with larger class sizes because their teacher numbers will not reflect their enrolment.
I ask the Minister to liaise with his Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, on the impact of the proposed cuts in school transport at primary level. The regulation under which new students will be unable to access school transport unless they are attending the nearest school will force families to send their children to different schools from those their older siblings are attending. This policy has not been thought through properly and should be reviewed. During the general election campaign, a significant number of Fine Gael Deputies gave commitments that the policy would be reviewed but nothing has happened since then and both the Minister and the Minister of State insist they fully intend to proceed with it.
Deputy John O’Mahony: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I will use the opportunity to draw attention to the difficulties faced by young qualified teachers in gaining employment, even on a temporary, part-time or substitute basis. There is widespread disquiet among young teachers, particularly at primary level, at the perception that retired and unqualified teachers are being employed in their place. Shortly after taking office the Minister sent a circular to primary schools which set out strict guidelines on the employment of retired and unqualified teachers. His initiative has helped to reassure newly qualified teachers, particularly in the context of figures which indicated that the number of retired teachers returning to the system has decreased significantly, because it gave them some hope of getting into employment.
Teaching remains a valued and sought after profession. The role of our teachers cannot be overstated. The country will not recover by repeating the mistake of putting all our eggs in the one basket of construction jobs. Our young qualified teachers have an important role to play in terms of helping young people to find highly skilled employment and allowing the Government to attract foreign investors based on our high standard of our education.
I commend the Minister on how he dealt with junior and leaving certificate classes. Concerns were expressed by students and parents about the effect that retirements from the public service would have on examination preparations. These concerns were addressed in a sensible way and there was only limited employment of retired teachers. However, I hope the posts vacated by these retirements will be offered to young qualified teachers.
Qualified teachers who pursued further up-skilling such as master’s degrees in language teaching after failing to secure employment are concerned that they will not be rewarded for their additional training. They will be hit on the double by the cuts to salary and allowances.
I listened intently to Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan last night while she outlined her views on the Teaching Council. As a former teacher, I agree with much of what she said. I often wondered what the Teaching Council was doing. The Deputy suggested it is merely an extra layer of bureaucracy that does nothing to support or raise teaching standards. I do not want to condemn the council but I ask the Minister to examine its functions closely because I believe they could be performed in a more efficient and cost-effective manner.
We must ensure that the education budget is focused on front line services. Those of us who represent rural constituencies are conscious of the changes recently announced to pupil-teacher ratios in small schools. I am not sure if the previous speaker is aware that an appeals mechanism was recently announced that will allow a small school, which can demonstrate and verify increasing numbers in September 2012 and beyond that, to retain a teacher. In other words such schools will not be condemned solely on the basis of the September 2011 figures, which I welcome. I had urged the Minister to have a flexible approach on that aspect and I welcome his response. This is a very emotive issue and, as one who attended a rural school, I recognise their value.
Outside teacher allocation, many of the supports for small schools, including caretaking allowance, cleaning allowance, secretarial allowance, resource teachers and capitation based on 60 pupils even though a school might only have 15 or 20, were not touched in the budget. I have urged the Minister to show flexibility to DEIS rural schools. For example, because the school in Aughleam in my constituency was a DEIS rural school, it could lose a legacy post and another post, moving it from a four-teacher school to only having two teachers. To lose 50% of its teacher allocation in a few years would be too much. I urge the Minister to address the matter on a case-by-case basis, which I believe he has promised to do.
Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick: I welcome the opportunity to speak about the Education (Amendment) Bill 2012, which abolishes the Educational Disadvantage Committee and allows for the employment of unregistered teachers in limited circumstances. It also gives the Minister for Education and Skills greater power in deciding procedures for the employment, redeployment and dismissal of teachers. It deals with the Scientific and Technological Education (Investment) Fund Act 1997 and the Scientific and Technological Education (Investment) Fund (Amendment) Act 1998.
The Bill gives the Minister for Education and Skills the power to redeploy a teacher, who is surplus to requirements in one school, to a school where a vacancy exists, while also ensuring that the commitments in the Croke Park agreement are honoured. While intending that all teachers will be registered by the Teaching Council, there will be a balance between having teachers fully qualified and registered, and in certain exceptional cases allowing schools to employ unregistered teachers on short-term rolling contracts.
The Bill provides that the HSE is responsible for speech therapists in schools, which has caused confusion for parents and professionals in the past. The Bill seeks to provide a clearer separation of functions between the Department and the HSE.
While the number of teachers in recent years has fluctuated, mainly in secondary schools, the number of teaching staff in primary and secondary schools has increased by 2,823 from 55,851 in the 2006-07 school year to 58,674 in the 2010-11 school year. The Government has committed to increasing the number of teaching staff over the next two years. At the same time, the national recovery plan has given a commitment to reform terms and conditions within the teaching profession in line with a commitment in the Croke Park agreement as follows. There will be a comprehensive review and revision of the contract for teachers and other educational staff, including special needs assistants, staff in vocational education committees, institutes of technology and universities, to identify and remove the impediments to the provision of effective services. Teachers and academic staff will be required to work an additional hour per week to provide a wide range of needs in various institutions, which will be committed to flexible delivery of new courses specifically aimed at the unemployed. There will be a process of redeployment at all levels to facilitate restructuring in the second and third level sectors. Improvements will be made in the substitution and supervision roster for teachers in second level schools.
The Teaching Council Act 2001 and the Teaching Council (Amendment) Act 2006 provide a legislative framework for regulating the teaching profession, promoting and developing teaching as a profession. The specific functions of the Teaching Council are as follows: to promote teaching as a profession; to promote the continuing professional development of teachers; to establish and maintain a register of teachers; to establish, publish, review and maintain codes of professional conduct, which include teaching knowledge, skills and competence; to regulate the professional conduct of teachers; and to maintain and improve the standard of teachers. More than 73,000 teachers are on the register of teachers.
I thank the Minister for the grant he gave the De La Salle secondary school in Dundalk, which has been allocated almost €500,000. Demand for places in this school has been very high and this will solve a major problem in the local area. I also refer to the education of persons with special educational needs, which is fantastic. We need to give small schools an opportunity to look at their teachers. Réalt Na Mara is the only school in Dundalk that has facilities for children with autism. At the moment the school has 19 teachers. If the new system is introduced, this will reduce to 15. I ask the Minister to consider this case in detail. It is very important to keep as many teachers as possible in these types of schools. I have been talking to many parents for whom a school such as the Réalt Na Mara dedicated to looking after children with autism is very important.
Deputy Tony McLoughlin: I thank the Minister for his initiative in announcing this morning an allocation of more than €30 million to assist with the replacement of prefabs with permanent structures in more than 200 schools. It will generate considerable employment in the building sector, including architects, electrical contractors and others.
The Bill provides for the procedures governing the appointment of teachers which will be decided by the Minister for Education and Skills with the approval of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The Minister need not consult with or seek the agreement of other parties. Following the establishment of the procedures, the appointment of a principal, along with other teachers and staff members, remains the responsibility of a school’s board of management. Schools’ boards of management play a vital role and at times they can be faced with issues concerning staff, in particular discipline and similar matters that occur in all schools. Boards are often required to take difficult decisions.
Under the existing section 23 of the Education Act 1998, procedures for the appointment of the principal must be agreed between the Minister, the patron, recognised school management organisations and any recognised trade union or staff association representing teachers. The original proposal in the 2010 Bill regarding VEC involvement has been dropped and is not included in the Bill. I note the Minister has decided to await the report on school patronage. However, I urge him to consider this proposal in any future legislation he may introduce. As a former member of Sligo VEC, I am an enthusiastic supporter of the VEC model, which would have much to offer if extended into primary education. The Minister will shortly introduce legislation to amalgamate existing vocational educational committees, which will result in the educational and skills boards being located at various locations. The Minister, Deputy Quinn, and the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, should review the 2010 Bill and consider the extension of the VEC model to primary education when that Bill is brought to the House.
I welcome section 30 of the Bill which provides that teachers may only be employed if they are registered and, more importantly, qualified according to standards defined by the Teaching Council. Section 30 of the Teaching Council Act 2001 expressly prohibits the payment of non-recognised teachers in recognised schools from State funds. However, it has not been enacted to date and there is currently no statutory obligation to employ only registered teachers. The Department acknowledges that there are some unqualified teachers working in schools and it is believed that up to half of all 3,200 primary schools have employed an unqualified teacher for up to one week during the first half of the 2011 school year.
The Teaching Council has reported that 73,000 teachers are currently registered. The register will set the mark of professional recognition for teachers and set out standards of knowledge, which is important. It will oblige teachers to engage in ongoing training and curriculum training. This measure will enhance the job prospects of our new, recently qualified teachers and will provide a better education to children especially in cases where maternity or sick leave must be filled in our schools. In certain circumstances the Minister will allow the employment of unregistered teachers. However, this will only be in limited circumstances, in instances where there is a genuine shortage and where the substitute is required at short notice. The employment of teachers who are not registered because of their unfitness to teach will not be possible under the Bill and I welcome this measure as well.
Deputy Michael Colreavy: The Education (Amendment) Bill provides for several important changes to the Education Act 1998 and the Teaching Council Act 2001. Notably, it aims to ensure that all teachers in schools are registered with the Teaching Council and are fully qualified and suitable for the essential role they are expected to play in the education of our children. Any improvement that can be made to existing legislation which ensures teaching personnel are of the highest professional standard is to be welcomed. It is vital that the well-being of children being taught in Irish classrooms is a top priority for the Government and society. Yesterday evening, our party spokesperson on education matters, Deputy Seán Crowe, gave our party’s considered response to the Bill. He outlined what we deem to be good and he identified areas where we believes changes might be needed and what those changes might be. I do not propose to repeat the points made by Deputy Crowe.
There is something altogether wrong when the child population is increasing while newly qualified teachers must emigrate. This makes no sense to me. It is unfair and discriminatory that newly qualified teachers, including those with the highest qualifications, should be paid considerably less than their peers already working in the system. Inevitably, this will lead to a worsening of morale among staff throughout the school system. This change should be reversed immediately.
The Minister will forgive me for being parochial. I will seek to ensure that the public pledge given by the Minister of State, Deputy John Perry, to the effect that no rural schools in Sligo Leitrim North will close under his watch, will be honoured in full and I will watch that space closely.
Deputy Michael Colreavy: I will proceed from what is in the Bill to what is not in the Bill but should be. There remains a serious gap in Irish education legislation not addressed in the Bill. This relates to the issue of how we handle allegations of abuse, bullying or emotional abuse of pupils by teachers. The Minister and the Department of Education and Skills profess that they are powerless to intervene in such matters and that it is up to an individual school’s board of management to process any complaints or allegations of abuse or bullying made against teachers. That is not a delegation of responsibility, it is an abdication of responsibility. It does not represent child welfare or protection, it is institutional welfare and protection.
I have no wish to overstate the scale or extent of this problem. I realise the vast majority of teachers are good, committed professionals who adhere to the highest possible standards. However, if teacher bullying or psychological or physical abuse of children occurs even once, that is once too often. It is clearly a flawed system when the Minister and Department of Education and Skills provide funding for educational institutions but have no oversight for or input into the protection of children in the education system. It is incredible.
In the course of the same reply the Minister stated: “I have no plans to introduce any additional legislation as suggested by the Deputy.” How can it be right that a parent or child who alleges bullying by a teacher has no recourse except to the board of management of the school? In most cases those on the board would be close friends of the teacher subject of the complaint. How can it be right that the Minister and the Department cannot investigate serious complaints against teachers and cannot instruct schools to follow a particular course of action with regard to individual complaint cases?
Schools’ boards of management are not independent, qualified, autonomous bodies capable of investigating allegations of abuse against teachers. They are part of the system and they will protect the system and those who work in it. School boards of management carry out exceptional work the length and breadth of the country but they cannot or should not be regarded as independent, qualified judges when dealing with allegations of abuse against teachers. We have all seen in recent history the consequences of closing our eyes and pretending all is rosy behind closed doors. Have we learned nothing from that?
Legislation should be brought forward urgently to enable the Minister and the Department of Education and Skills to work with the HSE to investigate and resolve allegations of teacher bullying or psychologically damaging children. Such an approach would ensure children are assessed by HSE professionals trained in the area of child welfare. It would also involve professionals from the Department of Education and Skills who are trained in school policy, procedures and responsibilities. This would ensure a uniform, standard, professional, accountable process nationally to deal with such allegations.
The Minister is aware — I have brought it to his attention and forwarded the file to him — of a young boy from County Sligo who has been out of school now for more than two years because he was wrongly accused in public of bullying by a school principal. Despite exhaustive efforts by the boy’s parents, which involved correspondence and discussions with politicians, civil servants, the school principal, board of management, the National Educational Welfare Board and HSE, the case is as far from resolution as ever. An eminent psychologist has testified to the great damage being done to this child and has indicated that the process of recovery can only begin when the school principal clears the boy’s name and reputation publicly in the eyes and ears of the school population. However, nothing has happened and the boy is still at home more than two years later.
Deputy Michael Colreavy: He is 16 and half years of age. He is desperately unhappy. He is not mixing with his peers. He spends all his time at home and has on occasion threatened to run away from home and worse. His parents are at their wits’ end. They have spent the past two years of their lives trying to have this matter resolved. They have tried every avenue except civil legal action but always run into a cul-de-sac of official impotence. This good and decent family has lost all respect for politicians and the political system. They have also lost respect for me, because although I want to help, I am unable to bring about the change that is needed. They ask, with understandable grounds, how any political system that claims to cherish and protect children can allow such a situation to continue with no avenue of address, let alone redress. They are angry, frustrated and disillusioned that politicians and the political system cannot see the wrong and correct it immediately. They spend sleepless nights wondering how their son can survive this cruel episode unscathed. The Minister has said previously and I agree that this sort of situation is disgraceful and should not be tolerated in any civilised society.
I would take the Minister to be a compassionate, caring and committed person and I ask him to put himself into the shoes of these parents and imagine for a moment what his life would be like if one of his young children was going through this ordeal. I believe the Minister knows it is wrong that this boy is a prisoner in his own home and that his psychological development is being greatly damaged by the failure of our legislative system to provide access to justice in this case. Home tuition is being provided but it is not the solution. The solution lies in legislating for an open, transparent, professional, independent, competent and accountable system to process allegations of abuse against teachers. It is deeply disappointing that the Bill contains nothing to address this.
Recently, I joined our party spokespersons on education, Deputy Seán Crowe and Senator Kathryn Reilly, for a meeting with members of the National Anti-Bullying Coalition. During that meeting it became very clear to me that bullying of and by teachers is not uncommon. It happens and what I am talking about is not an isolated incident. However, bullying is notoriously difficult to resolve short of civil legal action. We commend the NABC for the very important job it is doing in addressing the many types of bullying taking place within primary and secondary schools, which tragically lead in some cases to mental health problems, incidents of self-harm and suicide. We support the work of the NABC and the implementation of the Safe School programme which introduces accredited measures to address bullying and is based on empirical research and best practice in other countries, for example Finland.
The Minister holds the key to ensuring that young people like my young constituent and his parents can get justice. He has the right, the power and, I would argue, the responsibility to amend this Bill to incorporate the points I have raised. We cannot say we do not know what is going on: we know. We cannot and never would prejudge the outcome of any investigation, but we know there must be a process that will allow an investigation be held. We cannot say we are unaware of the potentially very serious consequences for this young lad from Sligo and his parents, and possibly for hundreds if not thousands of pupils and parents throughout Ireland.
I believe my job in opposition is not simply to oppose policy, therefore, it would be wrong of me to oppose policy purely for the sake of opposition. I believe my job here as an Opposition Deputy includes helping Government make better choices, decisions, policies and legislation and I take that responsibility seriously. In this spirit, I would gladly work with the Minister and his officials to address this issue. I have no doubt an amendment along the lines I have set out would receive extensive cross-party support. Will the Minister turn that key by agreeing to incorporate such an amendment? If he does so, he will not only initiate much needed legislation, but will offer hope and a restoration of trust in the democratic system for these parents in Sligo and for parents and students throughout the country.
Deputy Anthony Lawlor: I welcome the Minister. He has been a very progressive Minister since he took on the education portfolio and if he has done nothing else, he has stimulated debate on the whole education system. I was part of that system at one stage as I did the H.Dip and taught for a short period. I compliment Deputy Colreavy on raising the issue of bullying and on highlighting that it is a two-way process, because there are teachers being bullied and they and students must be equally protected.
I have some concern about the Educational Disadvantage Committee, the structures around it, its timeframe and the process we are now going through to remove it. This committee was established under the Education Act 1998. In 2000, former Member, Michael Finucane asked the then Minister when the committee would be established, yet it was not established until 2002. It reported in 2005 and its work finished then. I often wonder if the committee had been established shortly after the enactment of the Bill and had reported in 2000 or 2001 whether we would have the problems now associated with the DEIS schools, because many of the issues associated with DEIS schools had not arisen before the report of this committee was completed. My criticism is probably not a criticism of the Minister but it is a criticism of the permanent government, the Civil Service.
I suggest that when a Bill is being enacted we should ensure that any committee, report or whatever else is required to be done following the Act, is done as quickly as possible. We can see from the example of this committee how these issues are delayed. The budget was removed from the committee in 2008 but we are only now removing the committee from the provisions of the statute. I urge the Minister to act quickly in this kind of situation. When we decide to do something such as put a committee in place, we should do it quickly so that there are no legacy issues.
I applaud the Minister for introducing the concept of flexibility in the Bill. The economy has changed so much over the past number of years that flexibility is now a key word. We talk about flexibility in the workforce, in the education system, in what we learn and in how we direct our younger generation towards what is important for their future and jobs. I met members of the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed yesterday and they were using the key word “flexibility” also. They understand that the workforce must change dramatically, and education has a huge part in that.
I have seen flexibility at first hand in the teaching profession. Last Monday, I visited a rural, DEIS primary school where a teacher was absent for a day and noted how quickly the principal was able to get a substitute teacher. There was a pool of teachers in the local area who could step in and take over at short notice. However, there is a problem with substitution in the secondary school system because teachers teach specific subjects. If those teachers are absent for a day, a substitute teacher is unlikely to be a teacher of the same subject and pupils lose out as a result. A teacher can be out for a week or two and it is possible that pupils are losing out on two weeks of education.
The Minister needs to consider the establishment of a pool of young teachers who have just qualified to cater for this kind of circumstance. I remember applying for many jobs after I qualified from NUI Maynooth in 1983. Many principals who were keen to take me on were concerned by my lack of experience. I could not get experience.
Deputy Anthony Lawlor: I will give an example. If we put together a pool of teachers in County Kildare who are qualified to teach a specific subject, the principal of a school in the county that needs a substitute teacher of mathematics or geography can get a suitable teacher from that pool and thereby ensure the pupils in the school do not lose out. The same thing could be done in the case of oral examinations. Rather than taking teachers out of class to do an oral examination in another school, perhaps we could put in place a pool of retired or newly qualified teachers who would do oral exams in our schools. That would ensure classrooms are not disrupted. I ask the Minister to take that on board.
It has been suggested that the Educational Disadvantage Committee was a quango. That was not the case. It was established specifically to report on disadvantage in education and it did so very quickly. Its report was acted on by the Government at the time. Many of the quangos in the Department of Education and Skills need to be amalgamated or abolished as quickly as possible. When I spoke in the House the other day about another quango that is being abolished, I said we seem to be a little slow in reducing the number of quangos. I am sure a single quango could do the same job as three or four of the quangos in the Department of Education and Skills. I hope the Minister will consider taking that on board.
Deputy Robert Dowds: Like Deputy Lawlor, I commend the Minister on his active determination to improve our education system despite the difficult circumstances in which he has to operate. As the Minister is aware, I have a great deal of teaching experience. I am speaking in the context of my experience as a teacher and as a principal in mainstream schools and in a school for physically disabled children.
I would like to concentrate on a couple of areas, the first of which is section 6 of the Bill. It may come as a surprise to Deputies to hear that I welcome the provisions in this section that provide for the suspension and dismissal of teachers by boards of management in accordance with procedures determined by the Minister. Any dismissal of an employee should take place as a last resort. If it is possible to give guidance and assistance to teachers who are somehow in distress or difficulty, that should be done.
It is important to recognise that the vast majority of teachers and public servants do an excellent job. From time to time, the practices of a small number of teachers bring teaching into disrepute. Part of the problem in the broader public service is that it is difficult to dismiss a public servant. That needs to be examined. It is wrong that people can be paid for a job they are not doing. It detracts from the value of the excellent work that is being done by others. It is one of the factors that leads to criticism of the public service, including the teaching profession. I accept that such criticism is often grossly unfair.
In addition to boards of management being involved in dismissals, it is important for departmental inspectors to be allowed make an input. As Deputy Colreavy said earlier, boards of management often have to deal with cases involving people who know each other very well. That can be a positive or a negative thing. I hope the Minister will ensure inspectors are involved in decisions of this nature. That would help to guarantee a level of objectivity, which is important. Unfortunately, people can be picked on because they happen to be disliked by larger groups.
Section 6 provides for the inclusion in the Education Act 1998 of a new section 23(1)(e), which provides that one of the duties and responsibilities of principals is to “encourage the involvement of parents”. Parental involvement in schools is extremely important. It is happening to a much more significant extent than previously was the case. That has generally been beneficial for schools and individual pupils. If parents have a serious interest in the education of their children, the individual child will almost always benefit.
I would like to refer to a problem that can arise in this regard. Some parents are so wrapped up in their own children that they cannot look at the broader picture. It is important that certain lines are not crossed when parents get involved in schools. Specifically, parents should not interfere in how classes are run and indiscipline is dealt with. When I worked as a teacher, I dealt with the case of a child who had to be suspended for a few days, unfortunately, but was brought to school by his father on the first day of the suspension. I pointed out to him that the decision to suspend his child had been taken by the board of management rather than by me, but he insisted on his child staying in the school. It led to quite a difficult situation.
Deputy Robert Dowds: It was but legal threats had to be made before that happened. It is sometimes difficult for parents to understand that rules apply to their children as much as they do to everybody else’s children. Perhaps some guidance might be given in this area.
I have to admit that when I worked as a teacher, most of my colleagues seemed to view the Teaching Council as no more than an organisation that looked for €90 from us every year. Those of us who had been teaching for a while wondered why the establishment of the council was necessary. Any teacher who has a permanent position in a school will have completed a period of probation and will have received an official stamp, in a sense, from the Department of Education and Skills stating that he or she is qualified. I do not see why the Department cannot maintain a list of such teachers. Perhaps the Minister’s intention is that the Teaching Council will have other responsibilities.
Deputy Robert Dowds: Okay. I thank the Minister. I appreciate that in the case of teachers who work outside the State system, it is important to provide for a standard that can be recognised by anybody.
Deputy John Paul Phelan: I would like to make a couple of points in support of this technical Bill, which amends the Education Act 1998 and the Teaching Council Act 2001. Before I raise a few issues, I should mention that like most Deputies who are present, I have worked as a teacher in the past. I ended up working as an unqualified mathematics and science teacher by accident.
In the early years of the last decade I was a teacher for a short period to cover maternity leave. While I enjoyed the work I discovered that teaching was not for me. I echo some of the sentiments expressed by Deputy Dowds in his comments about the issues concerning the appointment, suspension, dismissal and redeployment of teachers. Certain individuals are not cut out for the job of teaching even though they are teachers. I was in the happy position of covering a six-month maternity leave and I could walk away but many individuals are not happy in their work and this is transmitted to their students. There needs to be a mechanism for dealing with this situation.
I agree with Deputy Dowds regarding the role of boards of management in the issues of suspension and dismissal of teachers. I served on the board of management of my local national school for a number of years. In most communities, the parents, staff and members of the board of management of the school are part of that local community. They are in daily contact with one another. It can be very difficult for any board member to have to deal with the question of suspension or dismissal of a teacher who is a friend or neighbour. I agree with Deputy Dowds’s suggestion of providing for input from departmental inspectors in this regard.
I have two issues of concern which I wish to raise and to which Deputy Lawlor referred in his contribution. The last day of February marked the date for a large number of retirements from the public service and many teachers in particular. It is imperative that temporary teaching positions and cover for maternity leave or illness, should not be provided to retired teachers rather than to young, unemployed qualified teachers of which there are very many. As mentioned by Deputy Lawlor, they are looking for teaching experience but they are unable to obtain a post because up to now these positions were being filled by retired teachers. This is not appropriate and the Minister has issued circulars to this effect but he needs to reiterate this message.
My final issue relates to the Teaching Council. In advance of the referendum campaign I was canvassing last Saturday in Piltown, in south County Kilkenny, which Deputy Mattie McGrath will know well as it is near Carrick-on-Suir. I met a woman who has been teaching for more than 20 years. Through no fault of her own, she missed the deadline by a day or two for her payment of the €90 fee to the Teaching Council, to which Deputy Dowds referred. As a consequence, she must now wait to be vetted and will be charged an increased fee in order to be included on the Teaching Council’s list. In my view, it is a peculiar system. If she had applied a day earlier, she would not be required to be vetted. She has worked as a teacher for 20 years and is a highly qualified, successful and good teacher. The vetting process will take a number of months in her case and in my view it seems draconian, to say the least. Everybody acknowledges the necessity for vetting of people who deal with children but this person has worked successfully as a teacher for over 20 years. I hope similar situations will not arise. I hope the Minister will take up the suggestion made by Deputy Dowds with regard to departmental inspectors helping boards of management to deal with difficult decisions relating to the suspension and dismissal of teachers. It is a very worthy suggestion that deserves to be accepted.
Deputy Mattie McGrath: This Bill proposes to amend the Education Act 1998 and the Teaching Council Act 2001. There are many good aspects to the Bill but I also have some serious concerns. Section 4 of the Bill provides for amendment of the definition of “support services” in section 2 of the Education Act 1998. It clarifies that speech therapy services in primary schools will be provided by the HSE, as has been the position. However, it is very difficult to access these speech therapy services and the HSE is a difficult organisation to deal with. While there are many good people working in the HSE, it is difficult to access the services it provides for children in national school, including dental treatments in any form.
Section 6 provides for a revised text of sections 23 and 24 of the Education Act 1998 to provide for the suspension and dismissal of teachers, and the redeployment of teachers, including principal teachers and other staff in accordance with procedures put in place by the Minister following consultation with the education partners and other Ministers. I question how this will work in practice because I thought the Croke Park agreement was meant to deal with such issues. The matter will be required to be dealt with by the Minister and also by the Minister with responsibility for public service reform. In my view this will be a very cumbersome procedure and it is a concern. In my view, the Croke Park agreement was negotiated with the trade unions. I do not wish to see anyone being bullied or moved unnecessarily but there needs to be flexibility in the procedures.
This section of the Bill also makes provision for the employment, in certain exceptional and limited circumstances, of persons who are not registered teachers under the Teaching Council Act 2001 and if the school continues to look for registered teachers in the meantime.
I ask what is the role of the Teaching Council. Teachers who have contacted me are very concerned. Deputy John Paul Phelan referred to a case where a teacher was a day late in registering with the Teaching Council and was forced to wait for Garda vetting. This is a nonsensical situation. The Teaching Council is taking in more than €5 million a year in registration fees. This system needs to be reformed and revisited.
Section 7 provides for the repeal of section 32 of the Education Act 1998 and will have the effect of abolishing the Educational Disadvantage Committee, while its work is to be commended over the past years. Educational disadvantage and social disadvantage are significant issues. I refer in particular to Traveller children and I commend the efforts of teachers, social workers and others who help with the inclusion in the system of Traveller children. This section of society has significant needs but now this committee has been abolished with the stroke of a pen. Efforts must be made to help young Travellers take advantage of education and to better understand their culture. All cultures must be respected and understood by all sides of society. I was involved with some of the projects organised by the Educational Disadvantage Committee in south Tipperary and I compliment Ms O’Connor who worked in this area for many years and great results have been achieved. Young people must be engaged in order to encourage them to interact better with others. I do not mean that the Traveller culture should be changed rather that young Travellers can be better able to adapt to other cultures such as ours. I have been a member of a board of management of a national school and also on the boards of management of both a secondary school and a VEC college. I have noted the number of different cultures in schools, with children from eastern Europe and beyond. These newcomers are welcome. However, if we cannot integrate our own ethnic Traveller community and its culture, there is something wrong.
Section 8 provides for the Minister’s powers of approval regarding teachers’ appointments. I have sat on interview boards and I am aware that some situations may be resolved by arbitration which can sometimes take a number of years. These can be costly and intimidating experiences for lay people who are involved.
Section 11 repeals the Scientific and Educational (Investment) Fund Act 1997 and the Scientific and Educational (Investment) Fund (Amendment) Act 1998. That is a worry because we must change our ways at primary school level also and adapt to changing times, society and work practices and the competition we face in bringing in high-tech multinational companies. I, along with other members of the Technical Group, had the opportunity to have lunch with the American ambassador recently, although it was not the first time I had met him. I had met him two years ago at a conference in Galway. University College Galway has very good links with the scientific industry in Galway and has a good name but at that time, the chief executive officer of one of the major companies addressed us and said the standard of science graduates, including biology graduates, had seriously slipped.
I deliberately discussed this with the ambassador’s aides who understand the situation from the point of view American direct investment in Ireland. They said that when American companies invest here, they must bring in graduates from Europe and elsewhere. That is not much good to the unemployed graduates from Ireland. There is a problem here which needs to be examined and dealt with very quickly. We all know how long it takes to produce a graduate. It takes so many years in secondary school, so many years in college and so on. However, there is a problem which must be dealt with.
Something has gone wrong with the education system because we had a name for having the best educated graduates and that is why some of these businesses came here. I could not believe that if companies invest here, they must bring in graduates from Europe. Even though they would prefer to employ Irish graduates, they are not of the required standard. I am not blaming the graduates but there is a problem which must be examined and addressed.
The Minister has left the Chamber, which is a pity, but I have serious concerns about the thrust of education, especially in respect of the religious ethos. I thank the religious orders — the nuns, the priests and the brothers — for the valuable role they have played in education since the foundation of the State. There were some problems, which we cannot deny. They were horrific and I condemn them out of hand but are we going to throw the baby out with the bath water?
I am concerned about the Minister’s agenda. I believe he has a personal agenda here, because of his own beliefs or non-beliefs, to remove the religious from schools. I object strenuously to that. It is a bad, nasty and an unfair move and it does not respect the millions of hours of education provided to under-privileged and ordinary people, which are still being provided by the religious in some cases.
I have always made the point about sisters, whether matrons of hospitals, school principals or whatever, that they are totally dedicated to their jobs. I have served with them on school boards. They do not have the distraction of family or otherwise and they are totally dedicated and well qualified. I have sat on interview boards with many sisters and I learned much from them because they are very experienced and very understanding and I pay tribute to them, including the Sisters of Mercy in my own town of Cahir and in all the towns of south Tipperary. I have children in national school, in secondary school and in third level. I have sat on boards, so I have a small bit of education. I am not saying I am qualified but I am willing to learn. I learn something every day.
However, I am worried about the Minister’s intention to banish these people, given the rich heritage they provided us with and the legacy they left us. It cannot be written out of history because of problems or the beliefs which any Minister may have. I am very concerned about that and I am willing to fight the Minister at every crossroads because it is wrong.
I refer to teacher numbers in small schools, which is a major issue. I admire the Minister for twice admitting since the budget that he made a mistake. We can all make mistakes, we make them every day. My motto is that the man or woman who never made a mistake never made anything.
The Minister admitted his mistake with the DEIS schools. Was that because so many DEIS schools are in the cities, in particular in Dublin? The Minister for Communications, Energy and the Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, and others lobbied him on behalf of DEIS schools. That is where the real lobbying took place. I compliment the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, for looking after some of the DEIS schools in his constituency because that is our job in our respective constituencies.
However, I am very disappointed now that DEIS schools have been dealt with that the Minister wants to write small schools out of history. I refer to their legacy and the richness of the culture and heritage they provide. There is one such school in my area, Sceichin A Rince, which the late Dr. Garret FitzGerald, God rest him, visited two or three years ago to celebrate its 150 anniversary because he had connections with the parish. It was an excellent occasion. That school is the community, as are schools in so many other areas of south Tipperary and west Waterford. We no longer have the pub, the post office, the health centre, the Garda stations and the community facilities and the creameries are long gone.
The school is the essence of the community. It educates the children. Small is wonderful. Big is not as wonderful as we thought. We found that out to our cost in many areas. The teachers in small schools have a real opportunity, which they use, and they are doing excellent work as are the families, boards of management, parents’ councils and the wider community. It is a family. There is also a closeness to nature. The pupils are not in big concrete buildings with concrete yards. There is nature in the playgrounds and they understand a little bit about flora and fauna and do many excellent projects in that regard.
I received a letter from a lady who moved to my constituency from Finland, although I do not have it with me today. We are always being told about the Finnish experience and how good it is. She came to Newtown in the south east part of my constituency quite close to Piltown, to which Deputy John Paul Phelan referred. I refer to the excellent work the principal, Breda FitzGerald, does along with her co-staff in the small school in Newtown. The school faces the threat of losing a teacher. They were pleased with the pupil-teacher ratio in the budget but there was a nasty attack around the back. It was like sticking a knife in the back because we have now found out that many other changes must be adopted. This will not work.
It is like the waste water, or the septic tank, legislation. This is striking at a nerve of rural Ireland. Two years ago the then Minister conducted research on the value of these small schools, including Sceichin A Rince. Has that been shredded, or is it in a box under a desk in some office? Why do we ask people to engage in consultation? Today, the Minister the Environment, Community and Local Government announced consultation on waste water, even though the Bill has been signed by the President. It is a sham and tokenism.
Why did we have consultation two years ago about the value of these schools? People, including the parents’ councils, parents, boards of management, teachers and the clergy from both denominations, who are patrons of most of the schools, fed into it, were passionate and were honest. Will that consultation be discarded and will we close these schools by stealth because they will not have the numbers?
Last week we were told there would be a review provided there were seven extra pupils. Who knows whether there will be in a community denuded of jobs and industry? We must keep rural Ireland alive. While there is blood in my body, I will fight for rural Ireland because I know the value of it. It is not all about the cities and the towns.
The parish priest says Mass once a month in that school, Sceichin A Rince, because there is no church in the parish. Plays, public meetings, community alert meetings and flower shows are held in the school. It is the community. If there is a public meeting about domestic water, or boil water notices as there have been for the past two years, that is where it is held.
The shop is closed because they bypassed the village and the NRA and the council would not allow them to put up a sign on the motorway indicating that fuel and other services were available. They steamrolled through and are trying to kill them.
It was a leap day yesterday and I saw one lady proposing to a man in this building. I love to see it but I am too old for that and I am already married anyway. How will a farmer in a relationship get a woman to settle down on the farm with him? It does not matter whether she is from the country or from the city. Many of the city women have been top class. There will be no school there, which is basic. If they get together, they will want to procreate and we want to keep our communities alive. How can we do it if they do not have schools? They have nothing. They must travel and the buses, which are prohibitively costly, are fast disappearing. Free education, introduced under Donogh O’Malley, is long gone. They want to take away the services provided by buses and there must be a minimum of ten pupils in order to retain a bus. There are huge bureaucratic systems, with reviews by Bus Éireann. I welcome the soundings by the Minister of State, Deputy Alan Kelly. A review of school buses was carried out in 2000 and queried why they are parked from 10 a.m. to 2.45 a.m. All buses should be used, including those used for daycare centres. There are major savings to be made. I welcome that because we need to have rural schools, services and buses. Otherwise, people will not settle in the country. Will we have afforestation and close the gates on rural Ireland? This attack on rural schools must be fought, will be fought and is being fought. I have had a number of public meetings. I compliment the teachers on the effort they make. Together, we — the boards of management, the National Parents Council Primary and families — stand while the Department of Education and Skills wants to divide and conquer. It is not right, fair or proper. This is a massive issue in rural Ireland and must be dealt with.
In fairness to previous governments, there was massive investment in education and the national road network. It affected 80% of the schools in my constituency as they saw huge investment in the past number of years. This applies to two-teacher, three-teacher and four-teacher schools, which did better than the bigger schools, which are under real pressure with five teachers. People in Cahir town have been waiting for decades for a new school to replace the old school, which is a Dickensian building. Small schools did very well and they are all fabulous and new. In many cases, they were short money to finish them but the community dug deep through fundraising such as charity walks and table quizzes. This made up the money for extra elements that could not be funded by the Department. This is the way it should be as these people are the enablers in every community. We want to educate our children to be the enablers to keep Ireland alive, to grow up to be entrepreneurs and to educate themselves so they have confidence and respect for themselves, their communities and the country. We cannot kill off that off by sending them to towns and cities. I am not anti-town or anti-city but what is out there in the community is wonderful and has served us well for generations. To School Through The Fields by Alice Taylor is lovely reading and evokes lovely memories. It is wonderful to go past the school yard and to hear children playing. There is nothing worse than seeing derelict schools with crows and jackdaws flying in and out of the windows. After investing in this, and sending out a consultation document three years ago on the value, quality and justification for small schools, the Department wants to close them.
We had a drastic clean out of the politicians last year but we had no clean out of the mandarins in the Departments, who should have been cleaned out years ago. They are stale, tired and lethargic and they do not listen to people. They are all-powerful people to whom we cannot talk, even though there are some people doing good work. Those people need to be cleaned out and shaken up and come to understand the issue by visiting the schools at break times and during class time to see the valuable work going on, the interaction between teachers and the love they have for their vocation. They should see the way families come in and out with their children and the interaction and various extracurricular events such as sport, scór and slógadh, which are part of our heritage that must be taught. The mandarins do not want to know and they want to kill us off completely. They want to turn off the lights in rural Ireland. It will be critical if they do it to the schools, which are our future and must be preserved and enhanced.
It is utter folly to talk about closing them after spending such massive amounts of money. Part of it was raised from taxpayers’ money and from charity walks and bungee jumps. It is daft and the mandarins need to wake up. The Minister would be better off rooting that out of the system than tackling the religious denominations that provided such service to schools in the past. The Minister should see where the problems are rather than, as this Government is in the habit of doing, going after the wrong people and blaming the ordinary people of rural Ireland, attacking them and squeezing the lifeblood out of them.
Deputy Mary Mitchell O’Connor: I propose to share time with Deputy Durkan. While I broadly welcome the terms of the Education (Amendment) Bill, certain provisions are lacking and I am glad to air my views. The Teaching Council of Ireland was established by statute in March 2006 to promote teaching as a profession at primary and post-primary levels, to promote the professional development of teachers and to regulate standards in our profession. In light of our severe economic climate and the resulting cuts that need to be made in the education budget, it is prudent that the Minister explores the possibility of subsuming the Teaching Council into the Department of Education and Skills. Due to economic restraints, England subsumed its teaching council into the English Department for Education and there is real merit to this approach. As an ex-principal and a teacher, I had many discussions with teachers regarding the effectiveness and dividend on the ground provided by the Teaching Council and I strongly urge that this be explored.
Currently, the Teaching Council of Ireland employees 24 full-time employees and is housed in Maynooth. Teachers pay a €90 registration fee and there are roughly 73,000 teachers registered, which equates to a €6.57 million annual income. Is this necessary? Making registration conditional on the successful completion of continual professional development must be welcomed. This requirement is standard in other professions such as nursing and doctors. I would welcome further detail from the Minister on the matter. For example, who will be providing this training and who will be paying for it? Will the training be provided by the education centres, the INTO, the teacher training colleges or the universities? In the interests of clarity and fairness, I ask the Minister to make this information available as a matter of priority.
I ask the Minister to explore, along with the training colleges, the possibility of introducing an interview process for teacher student candidates prior to admittance to college. Good teachers must have excellent communication and people skills. We must ensure the right people qualify and ultimately have a long and fulfilling career in the education sector. In Finland, students are tested through interview for communication skills, willingness to learn, academic ability and motivation for teaching. Focus must be placed on ensuring that students have the right skills and aptitude for teaching. Interviewing prospective students is in the interest of potential teachers, students and State resources. As an ex-principal, I have seen teachers come through the system who are not able to cope with the social, emotional and educational demands of teaching. Sadly, after three years of teacher training, they find out that teaching is not for them. I urge the Minister to examine the Hibernia College model and use it in the other teacher training colleges. These individuals often diversify into another field and their teacher training is a lost resource. It results in the individual teacher being frustrated and hindered in his or her development and the loss of State resources.
The lack of males in the teaching profession also needs to be addressed. The CSO women and men in Ireland report 2011 indicated the teaching profession is 73.3% female. Undoubtedly, this has a negative impact on children as many lack the influence of positive male role models.
With regard to the other element of speech and language services addressed in the Bill, I ask the Minister to explore possible methods of providing speech and language services to children in their own school environment. This would ease pressure on parents significantly and, more importantly, children would lose fewer hours of teaching time due to appointments.
Finally, I welcome the confirmation the Minister provided that vocational education committees will be reformed. I strongly urge the Minister to examine the make-up of the VEC boards. There are far too many political appointments to them. Furthermore, I encourage the Minister to investigate the possibility of imposing a voluntary model, similar to that in primary schools, on these boards. The volunteering role of people serving on primary school boards and voluntary secondary schools is one that should be replicated across the education system. The buck stops at the Minister’s desk and I ask that expenses be reduced for VECs.
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: I thank my colleague for giving me the opportunity to share time. This is a huge issue and one which requires more than the amount of time available to us. I cannot but compliment my colleague on her constructive comments from an educational viewpoint.
I cannot refrain from commenting on the points made by Deputy Mattie McGrath, some of which I agree with and some of which I profoundly disagree with. He referred to the fabric of rural society and the need to retain it. He is absolutely right about that. He referred to education, health, crime control, justice and Garda stations. It is the duty of everybody to recognise the necessity to provide for the maximum application of backup support and services to all areas, urban and rural, throughout the country to ensure even in the current difficult circumstances we try to retain the maximum level of competence and support to ensure citizens are treated reasonably equally. That is important.
Deputy McGrath also referred to protecting the interests of the people of Ireland and septic tanks. That has nothing to do with education. I cannot for the life of me understand how he can claim that opposition to the improvement of septic tanks is in the interests of people living in rural Ireland. The reverse is the case. The only thing that can happen with malfunctioning septic tanks throughout rural Ireland is that a lower quality of water supply will be available to people dependent on private water supplies. I do not know from where the Deputy is coming. The more the level of pollution in ground water is raised, the less likely it will be that people will be able to survive in rural Ireland the future. That is a fact and I defer to nobody on it.
As time goes by education, like everything else, needs to be reformed in line with the requirements of the modern era. I am sure some of the reforms will be seen in some quarters as being unnecessary or undesirable. Some of those proposed by the Minister are certainly desirable. We have all met constituents, including parents, children and teachers. Yesterday I met a number of classes and discussed various issues with children from a primary school. I was quite amazed at the level of perception, intelligence and focus on the issues they see at the periphery of their particular vision. It was quite interesting, which is as it should be.
The education system is working. It should not be isolated from the rest of the economy or community. It has to be the area wherein the formative years are used to provide the basic grounding that is needed to ensure a child can move from primary to second and third levels and have the best advantage in doing so.
There are advantages and disadvantages to large and smaller schools, and those in rural and urban areas. We all want to revert to what we see as best practice. There are examples of what has worked well in different situations. People might doubt me, but I am a product of a small school in rural Ireland. Some say it was a good investment, but others are not so sure.
The system produced some very fine quality people over the years the length and breadth of the country, and continues to do so. Even working under the current economic constraints that is still possible. I would welcome the constructive attempts the Minister has made, despite the very difficult situation, to address the issues that arise in regard to small rural schools. He has a formula in mind which will work, namely the amalgamation of resources in an area.
Towns and cities are different, and one can walk from one school to another. It is not possible to do that in the country, particularly in sparsely populated areas. A particular assessment needs to be done of the needs and requirements in rural areas. A distance of 45 km to a school is not an ideal situation. Nor is it ideal to have small schools isolated on their own, and expect them to stand alone and free and still enable students to integrate with wider society in the future. However, modern telecommunications are a feature and factor nowadays and technology can be used to try to ensure integration takes place.
I have referred to the objectives of the education system many times in the past. It should focus on the pupil, which is the primary function of education. How information is brought to the desks of pupils is hugely important. Modern technology can be used very effectively but it is also important to recognise that we are not all equal in how we do these things.
For example, in the political arena some are better than others, and some sit on the Front Bench while others do not. There are variations in the way teachers are able to convey messages to their students. There is a necessity to observe and recognise strengths and weaknesses within the sector, with a view to ensuring that we play to our strengths. Some teachers are good communicators in one area but perhaps not in other areas. We need to make sure we utilise information to the best of our ability.
There is some concern among local management bodies, which they have expressed to me and, I am sure, others, that no consultation took place with them over the introduction of the Bill. While I acknowledge there were time constraints and that it was difficult to have consultation, I hope the Minister may find it possible to address the concerns of local management bodies, making particular reference to the need to recognise that the education system, as with every other, is locally based. Primary education, in particular, is very much locally based and needs the support of the local community. The local community needs to feel needed and to be part of the system. Local communities have been very supportive over the years and local boards of management are very much instrumental in the delivery of education and the handling of issues constructively. Their approach has had and will have a considerable impact on the quality and standard of education.
The Bill makes special provision for children with special needs. The need to recognise such needs in the first instance was the subject of a long battle in the House over the years. It is only in the past 20 years that this issue has begun to emerge. Considerable numbers of unfortunate children never had their learning difficulties recognised. There were many battles in the early days on this issue in order to obtain recognition for children in these circumstances. Like every other Member, I am particularly conscious of the unfortunate circumstances in which some children and their parents found themselves. The parents sought recognition of the problem that existed and demanded help, diagnosis, back-up and support. Autism, ADD, ADHD, etc., were not recognised for many years. I am thankful they are now recognised.
There is a deficiency regarding the extent to which we can deliver equally to children right across the country. We have special units in special schools but their number is limited. This places great stress on the system and the parents, and particularly on the affected children.
The affected child does not understand that he or she is different or requires different services. However, understanding begins to emerge over time and children ask pertinent questions at a very early stage. All parents of children in such circumstances will readily admit this. The children themselves cannot identify precisely what the issues are, but they gradually emerge. When a condition is known, it may be too late to address it. If such a condition is addressed in the first instance, it gives the child a considerable advantage in terms of his being able to cope with life and society. This applies to every other child.
It is very important that we recognise a few fundamental points, even in these financially constrained times. We have an obligation to deliver education of the highest quality and standard to the new generation. The system needs to be up to date and to be the best available worldwide. I refer not only to those systems of our nearest neighbours, but also to those of countries worldwide. We need to achieve quality and excellence that are above and beyond any standard required heretofore.
I pay tribute to those educationalists who have, down through the years, passed on the ethos of educating the next generation. There may be differences of emphasis and ability among educationalists, but it is certain that where an educationalist has a natural vocation and ability to deliver the message and recognise the receptiveness of the pupil, great benefits accrue for the pupil, the pupil’s family and the economy.
I would like a lot more time to go through many aspects of the Bill to which other Members have referred but I do not want to be repetitious. In the current climate, we need to recognise that we must retain, as best we can, the bulwark of what is required to deliver in the future. I refer to delivery at every level, including of education. The same applies to health services, justice, local community services and quality of life. Quality of life is always affected by economic issues that arise.
There is a danger that the impact of the economic problems could be more severe for those who are less capable of bearing the burden. I do not concur with the notion that the burden has been borne more by rural people than urban people, or vice versa. The burden must be borne equally by both communities. We must always be conscious, irrespective of whether we live in an urban or rural area, of one another’s needs. While we will defend our own entitlements and rights, depending on where we come from, we must also recognise the rights and entitlements of those who do not live in our environment and who may not have some of our advantages. It is a question of capitalising on the advantages to the best of our ability to help us to work our way out of our current economic circumstances.
Deputy Clare Daly: This discussion is part of that on the reform of education. However, there are much more significant issues than those encompassed by this Bill, including those associated with the need to have patronage examined, the concept of secularisation in education and overall educational standards. That said, none of the discussions should be divorced from the overall question of resources and investment in education. To talk about reform in the context of a butchering of funding and inadequate funding really results in a lopsided debate. If anything, we need more investment in education, particularly in these pressing times for the economy. Investment would ultimately pay off and be beneficial not just to individuals, but also to society as a whole.
This Bill mainly deals with redeployment and standards. With regard to redeployment, there are not many objections from the trade unions, presumably because many of the measures have been agreed under the Croke Park agreement. The change in circumstances, whereby the Minister must engage in consultation as opposed to having the agreement of the partners, is fine because much of the detailed decision-making ultimately rests with the board and principal of a school. That is absolutely appropriate.
Let me deal with two issues in particular, the first of which is the abolition of the Educational Disadvantage Committee and the second of which concerns the Teaching Council. On the first, the committee has not really been active since 2005. The Government has argued that its role has largely been taken on by those administering the DEIS programme. The Irish Federation of University Teachers raised some concerns about that, arguing the arrangement may continue to fuel disadvantage in education. The retort of the Department, referring to ongoing work on combating disadvantage, must be questioned seriously. We cannot look at this measure in isolation, particularly given the recent attacks on DEIS schools, which the intervention of parents and teachers has altered. We must also look at it from the perspective of funding. Some 3% of the student body at County Dublin VEC have been told they will shoulder 10% of the education cuts. It is precisely due to the cuts in programmes targeted at disadvantaged young people that they will have to pay that price.
In order to have a massive leap forward in educational standards and retain young people in education, funding is needed for programmes with smaller classes such as the applied leaving certificate, other junior certificate programmes and schemes allowing Traveller children to participate, as well as the provision of special needs assistants or SNAs. Schools will have to cut these things, however, so we should re-examine this matter. The question of dealing with disadvantage must be placed in the larger context of what is happening to SNAs. I understand that the Minister is even talking about removing parents’ right of appeal in that regard, which would be absolutely disastrous. When the Government talks about combating disadvantage and the abolition of VECs being a part of that overall battle, the argument is weakened by attacks on the most disadvantaged young people, including students.
The role of the Teaching Council has been highlighted in this debate. The Bill’s explanatory memorandum outlines a list of the council’s functions and what it is supposed to do. While I do not wish to be disrespectful, most people would see it as a glorified organisation for vetting teachers by the Garda Síochána. Some would question the need for that organisation to exist as an independent body. We need to look at its role and what purpose it serves. In that context, the Bill is a lost opportunity in that it does not really go far enough. One of the key questions concerns why unemployed and part-time teachers have to fund this body. The reality in this State is that it is not possible to get a job as a teacher unless one is registered. The fact that it costs €90 per year, particularly if a person is unemployed, is outrageous. The fact that over 3,000 people did not re-register last year tells a certain tale. The figures speak for themselves.
The registration fee places an economic burden on people, which is totally unnecessary. Why are we talking about an annual registration fee? Why is it not every three or five years? If it is necessary to register every year, why is there an annual charge? It seems that the only purpose of this registration is as a revenue generating mechanism. No other explanation makes any great sense. The only reason I have heard being advanced is that “We need to make it self-financing and get funding for it”. Why should the cost of that self-financing be borne by the teachers themselves, particularly those who are unemployed or part-time, when the employer gains from their professionalism? The Department of Education and Skills, as the employer, should be funding this service, rather than individual teachers. If the Department should be funding it, this begs the question as to why the Department cannot do the work itself within its own departmental buildings. Why do we need a separate premises in Maynooth? What are the salaries of the top people in the Teaching Council? We should dig deep on these issues and examine them. If we are talking about streamlining and, as the Bill states, it is part of an overall cost-saving package, why do we not examine that aspect also?
In addition, letters sent out by the Teaching Council to its members use full-colour, heavy, embossed, expensive paper. It is quite incredible. While I do not know for a fact, I am told that it is of a graphic design character that is——
Deputy Clare Daly: My point is, why do we need to have that? The Teaching Council sends out receipts and letters to 73,000 people at a minimum postage cost of 55 cent each, not including the cost of the unusually heavy paper. What is this about? That is the guts of €40,000 in postage alone. We can take it that all these teachers are online, so what about the smart economy and using online receipts? If we are talking about avoiding waste and being more efficient, presumably these functions could be done more smartly than they are at present. As a result, we could save expense rather than foisting the burden onto teachers, many of whom are jobless.
In its material, the Teaching Council says that registered teachers can now see themselves as registered professionals similar to doctors, architects, engineers and nurses. That is nonsense, however. Teachers are not self-employed sole traders requiring professional indemnity insurance. They are essentially employees. The question of continuing professional development is hugely important to them. They have taken it on board and have had a constant input in that regard. There is a desire among teachers for an increase in professionalism and for continuous professional development. That can be done through in-service course programmes and by making the ongoing development of teaching standards compulsory. There is a real will within the teaching profession, and the teaching community generally, to do that within our education service. We do not need a teaching council to achieve that.
It is important to tackle the issue of casualisation because qualified teachers should not be on the dole when unqualified people are being employed in their jobs. I know it is said that this can only be done in exceptional circumstances, but I am not sure the Bill will achieve that.
It is understood that following the commencement of section 30, unregistered persons acting in place of a teacher, even if they are qualified, are likely to be paid at the unqualified rate unless they are registered. In other words, a financial incentive is being put in here to make people register. The Department of Education and Skills estimates that up to 10,000 teachers may have to seek registration with the Teaching Council or else face massive pay cuts, potentially to the tune of thousands of euro. I do not understand the motivation behind this. Is it to drive another 10,000 teachers into paying over their €90 so the council can get another few bob? Is it a back-door attempt to cut teaching salaries if people do not register? I am not sure what it is but I am concerned about cuts in allowances to newly qualified teachers. I would like the Minister to address this matter in more detail later.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: While we need to examine specific measures in this Bill, the general context in which the legislation is being put forward is depressing due to the cuts in education. Of course, the Minister and his Government colleagues will throw up their hands and say: “There’s nothing we can do. We’re in a straitjacket. We’re bankrupt and insolvent, and therefore we’ve no choice but to do these things.” I do not accept that in general, however, because it was a political decision of the current Government and its predecessor to prioritise the interests of bankers and speculators, and those who represent them in the EU-IMF, over our society and its citizens. It is extremely foolish to cut the education sector. I ask the Minister and the Government to consider this. While there may well be more, there have already been specific cuts to rural schools.
There has been the increase in the pupil-teacher ratio, which will do extreme damage to small schools in rural areas, and a cap on special needs assistants. Against a background of 10,000 extra pupils joining the school system every year, essentially a demographic timebomb working its way through the education system, these caps, cuts and holding of budgets at current levels will mean a degrading of the quality of education delivered to our young people. This is at a time when precisely enhancing the quality of and access to education is vital to get us out of the economic mess in which we find ourselves. Equipping our people to the highest possible level of education and educational standards is the only way we will be able to work our way out of this crisis. The Government talks about a high-tech and globalised economy. How that can be achieved is beyond me when the Government is degrading the quality of education available to people by increasing student-staff ratios, capping special needs assistants and cutting school capitation grants. It just does not add up and will only do extreme damage in the medium to long term.
The specific issue in this Bill I want to raise is that of unqualified teachers. I am deeply concerned about this and for that reason, unless the Government reconsiders the Bill’s provisions in this regard, I will be voting against it. The Bill proposes an amendment to section 30 of the Teaching Council Act and to section 24 of the Education Act to allow for the employment of unqualified teachers to fill in for teacher absences. The Government claims this is not the best solution as it is preferable to have qualified teachers. It claims there will be all sorts of provisions and protections to ensure qualified teachers will be employed in the first instance to fill gaps for teacher absences.
This country has mass unemployment and a considerable number of those unemployed are teachers. In the last week, 1,000 newly qualified teachers looking for employment protested outside the gates of Dáil Éireann, for example. Against this background, I simply do not understand why the Government sees it as important to make provision for unqualified teachers when there are plenty of qualified teachers seeking employment and will be in the future.
The key way to fill certain absences on occasion is by dealing with the issue of qualified teacher supply. It is the Government’s responsibility to ensure an adequate number of qualified teachers are available. With the brutal pay cuts the Government has imposed, along with the removal of the degree allowance, a newly qualified teacher will be coming in at €27,000, approximately €7,000 less than previous entrants. This will act as a disincentive for people to join the teaching profession and will either drive teachers out of the profession or the country. Did the Minister know that Abu Dhabi is advertising for English-speaking teachers, of which it has a shortage, on a starting salary of €90,000 per year? If I were newly qualified teacher and had no ties here, I would strongly consider going to Abu Dhabi, particularly when the Government here imposes pay cuts on newly qualified teachers and does not give a damn about the teaching profession.
In fact, the Government is degrading the teaching profession and is now opening up a situation where we will rely increasingly on the provision of unqualified teachers. It is particularly concerning when those unqualified substitutes are paid less. Whether it is the Government’s intention as the pressure for more cuts comes, it may come to rely more on unqualified teachers, resulting in a yellow pack layer of teachers which degrades the quality of our education system.
The Government claims this provision is simply to cover short-term gaps and absences. Teachers accept the need for flexibility in addressing these gaps but they are concerned about the possibility of an over-reliance on unqualified teachers with all its implications. Teachers have proposed that instead of amending the Act, a circular should be issued to allow for supervisors to be employed in extreme circumstances so that unqualified people can supervise a class for a day or two to avoid having to send it home.
An additional and even better proposal to cover teacher absences would be to re-establish and expand a pilot project which provided supply panels of teachers to service particular clusters of schools. Such a project was established in 1995 but was abolished, presumably as an austerity measure, in the 2010 budget. For every 150 teachers in a cluster of schools, there would be four or five supply teachers permanently employed to be deployed to cover absences. Such a scheme would address the circumstances the Government wishes to address rather than opening the dangerous door to having unqualified teacher levels expand with the consequent threat to our children’s quality of education. Will the Minister consider these suggestions?
Deputy Jerry Buttimer: ——as a registered and practising teacher prior to my election to Seanad Éireann in 2007. I also speak with classroom experience, as well as experience as a director of adult education. It is important to view this Bill in the context of the Education Act 1998 and the Teaching Council Act 2001.
Deputy Jerry Buttimer: I agree with Deputy Clare Daly that we must examine the costs of the Teaching Council. However, to claim teachers do not want to register and are complaining about the council is incorrect. I meet teachers every day and know they are not complaining about it. If she wants to go on about the quality of the embossed paper or the ink the council issues, she should remember it is the same notepaper we all get. It is the exact same. I am in favour of moving to an online system of registration. Let us deal with the real world. We have a group of people in staff rooms and classrooms who, under the Croke Park agreement, have changed the landscape of their tenure as teachers. There has been more movement and flexibility in schools recently than in the previous 25 years. That is testimony to the teachers who have shown leadership and who continue every day to demonstrate the ability they have in terms of the transmission of education in classrooms.
I welcome the changes proposed by the Minister, in particular his reform of the VEC sector. It is important that we give power back locally, amalgamate VECs and allow them to focus on their primary role, namely, to provide local education, training, up-skilling and retraining. That is at the centre of what their purpose should be. In recent weeks there has been reference to the VECs in newspapers and in the Committee of Public Accounts. We have a very good VEC within the city of Cork where the leadership is provided by Mr. Ted Owens, and Mr. Jim Corr, chairperson of the VEC. I very much look forward to the City of Cork VEC in particular continuing to lead in training and the provision of education.
The Bill makes provision for changes to speech therapy services, which are to be provided by the HSE. That is an important aspect of the Bill. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Cannon. The availability of speech therapy services for children requires joined-up thinking to continue by taking a multi-agency approach and a multi-departmental one between the Department of Education and Skills, the HSE, social workers and others. We must protect the vulnerable. The Minister is getting rid of the Educational Disadvantage Committee. We are talking about disadvantaged children. That must also be recognised. Section 6 deals with the appointment, suspension, dismissal and payment of teachers.
I wish to refer to a related issue, namely, the Employment Equality Act, in particular in terms of the possibility of teachers being discriminated against because of their sexuality. It is important that in the lifetime of the Dáil the Government would amend section 37(1) of the Employment Equality Act 1998. It is important that we remove the language contained and its implicit threat of sanction for teachers who may be discriminated against because of their sexuality. Discrimination cannot be allowed because a person is either married, single, divorced, in a civil partnership or because they are lesbian or gay. That cannot be allowed to continue. I hope the Minister will examine the issue in consultation with the relevant line Minister.
I appreciate that no cases have been brought to date, but it is important that we take on board the work of GLEN, which has been very much to the fore in this regard and has taken a measured approach in its engagement. I pay tribute to GLEN and its director, Mr. Brian Sheehan, for the way in which the group has campaigned and sought to remove this anomaly which is still part of the architecture of education. The provision should not exist. The Minister is amending legislation and the same approach should be taken to section 37(1) of the Employment Equality Act 1998.
Cathal O’Riada, a primary school principal in Cork, wrote a moving and informative piece last week in the Cork Independent newspaper. He referred to the word “freedom” being given back to teachers that they have not enjoyed up to now. In amending the legislation we would remove the fear based on the constant threat that exists for many teachers and we would allow them to be human without the fear of discrimination. The Government and the previous one have made huge strides with the civil partnership Bill, the Finance (No. 2) Bill and the Finance (No. 3) Bill, which is due to be introduced. It is important that we would continue the work.
Deputies Clare Daly and Richard Boyd Barrett referred to unqualified teachers and other personnel. I very much welcome the approach taken by the Minister, Deputy Quinn, and by the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon. Deputy Finian McGrath is present. He, too, would be aware of what it is like to be in a classroom. It is not always easy to get a qualified person on a Monday or Wednesday morning. At times, principals can struggle to get qualified teachers. I very much subscribe to the view that we must allow newly qualified people to become engaged in the profession, to seek employment, to be given experience and to be employed. I would love to see a 100% employment record of qualified people. That is what we must aspire to achieve.
I live in the real world but some of the people opposite seem to live in a parallel world. They are for nothing and against everything. They come to the House with no proposal. I do not refer to Deputy Finian McGrath. Let them come into the real world — go into staff rooms and principals’ offices and deal with the issues affecting them every single day. It is very easy to come to the House and cry every day, but one must come up with solutions. One must make practical, responsible suggestions that will get this country moving.
We are faced with campaigning for a “Yes” vote in a referendum. I challenge Deputy Finian McGrath and his colleagues opposite to be responsible and to put people first rather their vested electoral interests.
Deputy Jerry Buttimer: As Deputy Finian McGrath is well aware, the architecture of teaching has changed. We must focus on the delivery of good education by qualified teachers. That is why professional development and in-service training is important. We must not use the recession as a means to dilute that. I challenge the Ministers in the Department to come up with an adventurous and ambitious plan for the professional development of teachers.
Under the leadership of school management and in tandem with the boards of management, principals, VECS, teachers and parents, there is a requirement on us to examine the education system. Perhaps it is time we had another Green Paper or White Paper on education. I commend the Bill.
Deputy Derek Keating: I will refer to the Minister, Deputy Quinn, in his absence. I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I wish to address some of the issues that are important to me. The Minister has a task relative to the content of the first document in the State, which is the Proclamation by the leaders of 1916. As Members are aware, they all came from different backgrounds, creeds, ideologies and life experiences. The first line of the third paragraph of the Proclamation declares that the Irish people have a right to the ownership of Ireland. That was nearly lost by the actions of the previous Government with the support of Sinn Féin, when one takes banking issues into account.
Today’s debate is on education and I wish to place on record my support for the Government’s policy on education and the Minister’s stewardship. I record my admiration for the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, and the Minister, Deputy Quinn, and the manner in which they addressed the issues of SNAs and DEIS schools. The people were directly addressed, their views were listened to and taken into account. The Minister was prepared to review the situation and to change his mind. Far from being a weakness, that is a great strength in a human being. I welcome that all teachers must be registered and that supervision and standards in education must be adhered to. The Bill is a significant step towards achieving these aims, particularly during times of difficult economic circumstances.
The House, the Government and the Minister are rightly motivated by the well being of children, their education and their cultural, social and spiritual needs. Through the Minister and his Department, we hand over responsibility to the thousands of teachers in our system at preschool, primary, secondary, adult and tertiary level. Almost 1 million children and students are in full-time formal education, accounting for 23% of the population. The Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, and the Minister, Deputy Quinn, face the difficulty of making provision for a further 70,000 children. Our economic crisis, which saw the previous Government put our independence in peril, will only result in success if our education system can meet the demands of society, the expectations of individuals and the needs of industry.
There is a little cynicism about the previous Government’s performance in education because all it did was throw money at the sector. However, a great deal of evidence shows there was minimal long-term strategic planning. When the current Minister, the Minister of State and other Ministers travel to other countries for the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, they will formally and informally meet hundreds of Irish people who have moved abroad and set up homes and families and will be celebrating their Irishness. Many of the people living outside Ireland would love to return home for one reason, namely, our education system. The pride we all feel in it is directly linked to teachers.
The Minister knows that we have problems in the education field. He inherited them. A major problem in the system and in society at large is that of literacy. This issue is close to my heart, having spent a number of years as director of a voluntary adult literacy group. A long time ago, a man told me that I needed to take into account what it was like for him as a father and neighbour to walk into a post office and not be able to find his way about, be it filling out a postal order or sending registered mail. I appeal to the Minister of State to examine this issue and to determine what plans can be implemented to address this major problem.
Last year, I raised with the Minister an issue that was causing difficulty for many parents, namely, school principals writing to families requiring them to make voluntary contributions. Added to this is the expense of books, photocopying, uniforms etc.
Deputy Derek Keating: I welcomed the Minister’s reply to the effect that this was a voluntary contribution and that no school could insist on payment, particularly when new pupils were being registered.
Deputy Derek Keating: For some time, I have been involved in addressing the major issues of obesity, bullying, suicide and self-harm. Deputy Finian McGrath has taken an active interest in the latter two issues. Sport needs support and development, although investment in equipment is not a significant need. Recently, Senator Eamonn Coghlan started a plan for every school. I would welcome the Minister of State’s opinions on it.
Also recently I had an opportunity to meet the teachers of a school in my constituency, the Archbishop Ryan senior national school in Balgaddy. They are committed to the challenges facing the school, which is in the heart of a developing and, in the opinion of some, very needy community. Their principal, Mr. John Ring, and their INTO representative, Ms Siobhan Kelly, outlined to me with all of the teachers present the challenges they face on a daily basis. Given the fact that more than 70% of the school’s children are international students, the teaching of language is a particular demand.
The following day I met the principal of the adjoining Archbishop Ryan junior national school, where Ms Marie Mullen, her staff and some 200 children in prefabs are facing the challenges of the economic downturn. The teachers are not only providing an excellent education service, but a wonderful developmental service for the children from the new community in Balgaddy to help them integrate into Ireland, to become culturally aware of Ireland and to accommodate their different cultural and linguistic backgrounds into the Irish curriculum.
These are a sample of the 40 schools in my constituency of Dublin Mid West. I also met the board of management of St. Mary’s school in Saggart recently. It is a two-site school with two special needs classes. I was overwhelmed and impressed by the standard of teaching and the dedication of the board. The school is facing serious challenges.
Will the Minister give further attention to the topic of adult education, which is the key to our economic recovery? For example, Collinstown Park Community College in Clondalkin and the Inchicore College of Further Education provide retraining for adults who are changing careers. Such people need the support of the education system. I hope that, in the Government’s lifetime, the Minister and his Department will be able to meet this challenge and allow people to play their part in our national recovery. I support the Bill.
Deputy Finian McGrath: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to contribute on this important debate. The Bill sets out to reform our education system and is concerned with better service delivery and wiser spending. A good, efficient teaching service needs top quality teachers, first and foremost. Give me a good teacher, and the debate on resources, procedures, accountability and reform will follow. Treating skilled teachers as a priority is the way to improve the education system.
The teaching profession will always need people who want to be teachers and enjoy working with young people. One can have all of the points and degrees one wants, but one must love the day job, get a buzz out of it, like children and have certain professional standards to be a good teacher. These are the people who will deliver front line education.
The good news is that Ireland has many such teachers. During my time as the principal of a disadvantaged school, I saw young and fantastic teachers barely a wet week out of college turn around junior and senior infant classes in a matter of months. Standards improved and poor children made great progress in terms of literacy and numeracy. This can be done by the right person in the right place even against the odds. It shows what can be done when the right people are on the front line.
For this reason, I welcomed the Minister’s recent decision to continue supporting DEIS schools. I was annoyed and disappointed by the original decision on the cuts but I was glad the Minister was prepared to listen to teachers, parents and Deputies from multiple parties who campaigned on the issue. In the assessment, the DEIS schools proved that they had made a difference in disadvantaged communities. If one improves numeracy and literacy levels among students in disadvantaged schools, one saves money in the long term by preventing young people from getting involved in crime. Numeracy and literacy problems are a fact of life among the prisoners in Mountjoy Prison. The low self-esteem that started at junior infants led them down the route of crime. I have spoken to many prisoners and ex-prisoners about this issue. We have to invest wisely in early education. I challenge any economist to present evidence that such investment does not offer value for money over the longer term.
The Bill abolishes the Educational Disadvantage Committee, provides for the employment of unregistered teachers in limited circumstances, clarifies the support services offered to school children and gives the Minister greater powers in deciding procedures for appointment, redeployment and dismissal of teachers. The Bill also repeals the Scientific and Technological Education (Investment) Fund Acts.
We must be careful in addressing the Educational Disadvantage Committee issue and resources must be provided at the earliest opportunity. The debate on DEIS revealed many examples of good practice in disadvantaged schools. The delegations who met the Minister and Government backbenchers were convincing because they had delivered in their schools.
Poor children deserve quality teachers. A good teacher will always listen to the concerns of his or her pupils and is prepared to broaden his or her mind. It is sometimes the case that teachers who might not meet the highest standards end up in disadvantaged areas. We should target trainee teachers who want to work in disadvantaged areas. I made the choice to work for 27 years in a school in a disadvantaged area. Every time I meet a group of students from Marino college, 10% to 15% want the challenge of teaching in a disadvantaged school. They should be encouraged with the best of support and guidance.
I would love to see Mandarin being taught in Ireland because our future economic development will be based on our relationship with China. If we can teach Spanish or French, why can we not teach Mandarin? However, we should not overload the curriculum by reforming the system. Reform should be based on sound educational or economic reasons. It is a pity Deputy Buttimer is no longer in the Chamber because I would like him to consider the idea I have just suggested. By including Mandarin in the curriculum now, we can reap the benefits in ten or 15 years’ time.
The Bill amends the definition of “support services” provided in section 2 of the Education Act 1998 to clarify the position on the delivery of speech therapy and other health and personal services to students of school-going age. It also provides for the consequential repeal of sections 7(5) and 7(6) of the Act. We must be prepared to invest in speech therapy and other support services to ensure they meet the highest standards. Young children with speech problems and disabilities are often highly proficient in other areas. Good teachers will zoom in on the positive qualities displayed by their pupils before dealing with the areas in need of support. A great number of well-known people in this country experienced speech problems when they were in primary school.
The Bill provides for the abolition of the Educational Disadvantage Committee. This measure requires a broader debate because I am aware from working in a disadvantaged school that there are different levels of disadvantage. Extreme levels of educational disadvantage are apparent in cases where children come to school hungry from environments associated with domestic violence and drugs. Four year old children who see their mothers being beaten up every night are expected to act normally when they come into the classroom the following morning. Other children are disadvantaged because their parents are unemployed or are low-paid workers, but they nonetheless benefit from the stable environment of a happy and safe family. The extreme forms of disadvantage must take priority when it comes to funding. We cannot sit on the fence in respect of this issue. One should not expect a four year old child to be normal after witnessing violent acts committed by somebody who is souped up on cocaine.
The bad news is that a significant number of children have to endure such an environment but the good news is that the DEIS schemes allow schools to deal with their problems constructively. For some of these students, the only part of the day when they are happy is while they are in school. Some Members may find that difficult to believe but five hours of school can be heaven for children from dysfunctional or violent families. I have seen cases where children had to be thrown out of school in the evening after finishing their after-school projects in music, sports and computing.
If the resources are slim, we have to invest them in the most needy sections of society. Other areas can suffer cuts for a while. I welcome the decision on DEIS schools but it is important that we keep our eyes on the ball because education has to be part of the strategy for reducing crime and increasing economic activity. We have to deal with the banks, the financial crisis and the European issue, but we also have to provide for education. Most people who work in economic and social development are aware of that reality.
The Bill amends the Education Act 1998 to allow for employment in certain exceptional and limited circumstances of persons who are not registered teachers under sections 6 and 8. As a former school principal I have had the experience of getting a phone call at 8 a.m. on a Monday to be informed the school would be short one teacher and being unable to find a qualified teacher. Plan B is usually an experienced substitute who can deal with a class and is good with children but might not necessarily have the academic qualifications. There were times when such people got me out of a hole as a principal and dealt with the class very efficiently. Some of those people, if they had the extra qualification, would make excellent teachers. While we need to able to deal with that, we also need standards and regulation.
The Bill also provides for the appointment, suspension, dismissal and redeployment of teachers and other staff in accordance with procedures determined by the Minister following consultation with the education partners. We need the people who like the day job, get on well with children and have the required professional standards. In any job people can have personal issues and teachers with personal problems should always be shown the maximum compassion and support. However, there should also be a strategy as addressed in this section to ensure the children in the class do not suffer. The bottom line is that we want to have professional people and standards. Above all we want the right people working in the job.
The issue of educational disadvantage is important. There is a pool of young teachers who with the right direction and leadership could be appointed to disadvantaged schools and do great work as many have done in the past.
The Bill clarifies that the HSE is responsible for the delivery of speech therapy in schools. Section 2 of the Education Act 1998 makes speech therapy a statutory function of the Minister for Education and Skills. However, the HSE is the statutory body for the delivery of health services and its Vote includes funding to provide therapy services to children of school-going age. According to the Department of Education and Skills this created an anomaly which has caused confusion for parents and professionals. To reflect a clear separation of functions, the Bill seeks to provide a clear separation of functions between the Department and the HSE. This issue needs to be resolved because when it comes to speech therapy we need to get in there — we do not need talks about talks and do not need issues falling between two different bureaucratic systems.
Some of these educational issues are covered under the Croke Park agreement. A number of Government Deputies have recently been jumping up and down about that agreement, but much reform is taking place. I used an example last week in the Dáil. In the past seven months St. Michael’s House has taken a hit of €950,000 through reforms in the services. So we should not slag off staff and people who are making efforts to improve the services for children with disabilities while at the same they are experiencing staff reductions.
Earlier this week when discussing the retirements of a number of our colleagues, we touched on the need for a good quality public servant. A teacher needs to regard his or her role as a public servant. Teachers are paid by the public and work for the public. For approximately ten years that ethos disappeared in the greedy jockeying and we lost that old-fashioned professional ethic. I make no apology for saying that the idea of public service is very important. I have met many student teachers in St. Patrick’s College in Marino some of whom have a special interest in special needs, some who want to get into highly academic schools — good luck to them — and others who want to work in disadvantaged schools.
The functions of the Teaching Council are to promote teaching as a profession; to promote professional development; to maintain a register of teachers — more than 73,000 teachers are on the register of teachers; to maintain codes of professional conduct for teachers; and to maintain and improve standards of teaching, knowledge, skill and competence. I started my contribution today dealing with the importance of competence, knowledge and skills given that Irish society is changing so rapidly.
I am delighted that among young people the demand for teaching careers is relatively high. I would like to see more gender balance. There are high levels of satisfaction among the general public with teachers. However, that does not mean we do not need to up our game and teachers should be willing to take their fair share of criticism in order to improve their performance. We need to improve teacher induction and professional development. We also need to recognise we have a good group who are up for change and are valued.
There are concerns about the image and status of teaching and teachers often feel their work is undervalued. When I was the principal in a disadvantaged school that was highlighted to me by a number of young teachers in the school. From a management and human resource point of view, we can get much more out of people by treating them with respect and dignity. Those working in disadvantaged schools in particular must treat the children with equality, respect and dignity and thereby get much more out of those children.
Deputy Catherine Byrne: I thank the Minister for his initiative in announcing that €35 million would be provided to replace substandard prefabs, many of which are in my constituency. I believe the provisions of the Bill will lead to better practices in schools of education and will lead to better teachers coming out at the far end. It will also provide that those wanting to go into teaching will be safeguarded when they are in that role. As I come from an area where DEIS schools are very much in demand, I agree with Deputy Finian McGrath. My children all went to DEIS schools whose teachers were excellent, not just as teachers but also in how they looked after children with different social needs. They looked after the wellbeing of children from breakfast in the morning right through to after-school programmes in the evening. It takes a special person to teach in such a school. They need to be interested not only in the academic aspect but in the overall well being of children.
Some of my comments are not on the Bill but I welcome the opportunity to make them nevertheless. I have lived, worked and gone to school in an area regarded as disadvantaged.  At present, there are four primary schools and one secondary school under the DEIS programme in my area in Inchicore. There are 900 students between these four schools, a remarkably low number. When my children went to these schools there were between 400 and 600 in each of them. Now, some have an enrolment as low as 240 pupils. Why is this happening? Why do people chose to send their children outside a parish which in the past had considerable school numbers and where the teachers are as qualified today as they used to be? Why is there such a stigma around sending children to DEIS programme schools? I do not have the answer but in the area where I live and work, the label of a DEIS programme school is put not only on the school but on the children and the community. I have real concerns for all of these schools in the area where I live. It may benefit some schools in the short term to be under the DEIS label because in the past they received extra money and teachers but how does it benefit them in the long run? Of the five schools I referred to, I foresee at least two of them closing because I simply do not know how they can keep a sufficient number of children on the roll book.
Deputy Catherine Byrne: No. It has increased. There are many new apartments and many new well-educated young people moving in and bringing up their families in the area. However, they do not necessarily send their children to school in the area.
I have many concerns including the reduction in the capitation grant. I understand that we must make choices and I have said as much myself. One school is between 60 and 70 years old and has rising damp. All the classrooms were used at one stage but it cannot afford to use all of them now because it does not have the same number of students as before. The summer grant and minor works grant are gone. Those involved are left with the dilemma of whether to heat all or half of the school. How do they cut the heating in the other half when it is all connected to the one routing service? The small summer grants for these schools have been cut and this puts them in a worse position. The standards in the buildings should be rising not falling. It is very difficult to heat many schools in my area now. In one of the schools which uses prefabs a large building is being built. However, as the Minister is aware, the project came to a halt because two developers are not on site now. This is a real issue.
I speak as someone who was born, reared and who went to school there. We are left with a dilemma in my parish and community and throughout Dublin South-Central because DEIS programme schools are not attracting the numbers they did in the past. I realise I am digressing from the Bill but I call on the Minister to consider how we can protect these schools and perhaps give them the extras they need rather than label them. Labelling schools is wrong for young children and it leaves many of them isolated in their communities. Many families and parents to whom I have spoken believe it is wrong to label schools and our children. This has been a growing concern of mine for several years.
All my children went to DEIS programme schools and they all received a wonderful education at them. I cannot speak highly enough of the teachers. I have served on two of the boards and the parents’ committee as well. Something must happen now to make a difference to these schools. We cannot expect schools with numbers of 600 or 400 to survive on the amount of money they receive at present. I offer one example. Recently, I was at a meeting where I learned that a school in one area earned €172 in a cake sake. Another school in a more affluent area in my constituency took in €1,300 in a cake sale. There is something wrong with that imbalance. I welcome the changes but we should be aware that we are asking those involved to go to schools and deal with children who have difficulties — not all of them but some of them — and expect the school to stand on its own ground while the building is falling down around them.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to digress but it is important. I have spoken to the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, on this issue. We must reconsider how we identify schools in RAPID programme areas at this stage.
Deputy Catherine Byrne: Exactly. I grew up beside one of the poorest areas in Dublin, Keogh Square. At one stage some 900 people lived there. People in Keogh Square will emphasise that they were not disadvantaged. They may have been poor but they had a quality of life, good parenting and parents who worked. They had bread and butter on the table for their tea, it was not always a sausage and egg supper. However, they were stand alone people. The views of the people I listen to resound in my ear all the time: they do not want to be labelled anymore. This has destroyed communities and made them no-go areas in many ways and we do not want that. Last week I visited School Street School in the heart of the Liberties. It is an excellent school. Children go there from Oliver Bond flats and School Street and around. They are the best of children, the best of families and there is the best of support from the parents. However, they are labelled. I call on the Minister to consider this in some way. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me some extra time.
Deputy Michelle Mulherin: I join Deputy Byrne in welcoming the announcement of the €35 million to be put in place to replace temporary substandard accommodation or prefabs. The news story is that teachers, schools and boards of management have been calling for this type of approach for years because it makes sense. One can spend €50,000 or €100,000 per year on renting a prefab and one is paying rent to infinity. Now, the Minister will put this money into bricks and mortar. This will provide a better facility for schools and money and jobs in the short term in the hard-pressed construction sector. I understand this will work as a devolved grant. This should give more choice to get better value for money for boards of management. This is a creditworthy decision and I welcome it.
Deputy Michelle Mulherin: Exactly. That is a good point. Small schools can be rural or urban. There is something of a divide. Parents are concerned about changes and the information they are getting. There are certain interpretations of the fact of an increase in the pupil teacher ratio which are incorrect and advert to a bad scenario of a school closing. This is not what the Minister proposes. I wish to speak to the genuine fears people have for their children in primary school and to the future for rural or small schools. Predominately, small schools are in rural areas.
I wish to put paid to the myth that there is a great urban rural divide. I went to a rural school and I live in a town. If the Minister came to my town he would realise we are only a stone’s throw from being rural. The distinction is false. The idea that small schools are being picked on and large schools have it easy or that larger schools or urban areas are more favoured is questionable. The benefit of being in this position is that I can hear all sides of the story and get information from the Department.
All schools have one thing in common: they face the same challenges. Let us consider the larger schools with more than four teachers. Such schools may have 30 students in a class. The teachers involved will explain that some of their students are unable to speak English.  Nevertheless, they must try to control 30 students or more. There are more social problems in urban areas and larger schools.
On the other hand, there are the smaller schools, which must always battle on economies of scale, where a teacher might have several classes in one classroom. I am a product of that environment and have that experience. Whichever sort of school parents send their children to, they all say we have an excellent education system. We have and we must begin with that. In that context, we must make a proportionate response to the fact that the pupil teacher ratio is increasing for small schools. This is not the end of the world for them. That is only the interpretation of some people who try to make out that rural Ireland is being picked on. If that was the case, I would not stand for it.
We must look at this in the context that the Minister must make cuts. We are in a situation where the IMF is involved and because of that, our hands are financially tied and we are constrained. The Minister’s recent decision that 235 DEIS teaching posts, which were to be axed, will be retained has been welcomed generally. However, when we examine that decision to discover from where the Minister is getting the money, we see he has to cut the capitation grant. Therefore, the capitation grant is being cut by 3.5% rather than 2%. Now, some parents from larger schools have e-mailed me to say that now the decision has been made to retain the DEIS teachers, the capitation grant for their children in larger schools has reduced and they are not happy about it.
We see it all, hear it all and try to make fair decisions. We should also look at this in another context. A few years ago, the pupil-teacher ratio in larger schools increased. Therefore, these schools have seen a tranche of cutbacks. In the next six years we expect to have approximately 70,000 new students in our primary and secondary schools. We must cater for these students, but we have to do that on less money. Some 92% of the budget for primary schools goes on teachers’ salaries, increments and pensions. This leaves little room to manoeuvre with the budget to cover the running costs of schools. This is down to binding commitments and the Croke Park agreement.
This is the background to increasing the pupil-teacher ratio. Currently, in primary schools we have from a ratio of 6:1 in some schools to 30:1 in larger schools. Over ten years ago, a small school had to have 28 pupils before it got a second teacher. That did not result in the wholesale closure of smaller schools. However, if I look around my area, which is a rural area, I see evidence of small schools that have closed down over the past century. These monuments of old schools exist because the populations are not there to sustain them. This is the reality of rural Ireland.
Deputy Michelle Mulherin: Thank you. I welcome the appeal mechanism, but not everybody knows about this. The Minister has picked last September as the date on which the pupil-teacher ratio must be examined and is implementing the cut in numbers of teachers on that basis. However, people can appeal if they believe the numbers were abnormally low on the specified date. I welcome that appeal process.
This issue illustrates the need for a broader debate throughout parishes and communities on the future educational needs of our children and how we can plan for these to be met. This concerns the organisation of schools for the most part. Schools have patrons and in areas that are predominantly Catholic, the patron is probably the bishop. We need a forum for discussion on this. It is not because the Minister has increased the pupil-teacher ratio that suddenly chaos prevails. There are already underlying problems for small schools. Aside from the concerns parents express to me, they acknowledge that in some rural areas with small schools within a few miles of each other, these schools are vigorously competing with each other for pupils. This has caused people to fall out with each other. The situation is almost like that prevailing in football clubs where people ask what club others support. That is not the way education should be. There are many issues surrounding this. I know of parents who are bypassing the school beside them and taking their children to another school because they have that choice.
Part of the dialogue on this must involve schools that may not be able to plan their future, whether that should be amalgamation or something else, because of their unique circumstances, such as a non-Catholic school, a non-denominational school or, as in the case of a school about which I wrote to the Minister, a school in a Gaeltacht area which chooses to teach its children through English while all the schools around it teach through Irish. What are the prospects for such schools? Every area has unique circumstances. We know, for example, of schools that are so far from any other schools that pupils could have a 40 km return journey to and from school each day. We would not wish for pupils to have to undertake that sort of journey.
People must be empowered and their fears addressed. I challenge patrons and boards of management to encourage parishes and communities to come together for dialogue on this so that parents do not feel sidestepped or feel that nobody cares about their children. We do care, but the issues must be discussed in a constructive fashion. Emotions must be parked. We all have feelings about things. However these feelings should not focus on a building or school, but on the best outcome for children in rural areas or areas served by small schools. This consultation and dialogue must take place, but because every area is unique, each area may come up with an individual plan. Then, it is up to us and the Minister to respond to these plans. In that way we can begin the dialogue to make proper provision for the future so that this does not become, in this instance anyway, a rural-urban divide in which spurious arguments are made about some sort of plan or mission to get rid of small schools. This is clearly not the case. Parents are concerned and these concerns and fears must be allayed. The constructive way to do this is for people to get together in dialogue. That is my challenge to patrons and boards of management. It is not out of their hands and they are not powerless. None of us is powerless. It is the law or the constitutional right of parents to decide on the education of their children.
However, we are constrained. The impression given to people by the previous Government over the past number of years that people can have whatever they want is not the case. That is not the reality of living and is not the economic reality we face now. However, we do want fairness, equity and democratic consultation and to open dialogue with people. This is the way to do it.
Deputy Eamonn Maloney: Like others, I acknowledge the announcement on the long-sought abolition of prefabricated classrooms. There has been significant discussion on this in the House — long before I was here — and promises upon promises were made, but it took this Government and Minister to deliver. They said less than a year ago that there would be a move on this and I commend the Minister on the level of the allocation to replace prefabs with proper accommodation.
I wish to declare my support for the amendment to the Bill. I intend to focus on section 7, but before doing that wish to refer to the mention by previous contributors of the abolition of the Educational Disadvantage Committee. In principle, I have no great difficulty in agreeing to that. I want to acknowledge the work the committee did in the past, particularly at the beginning of the process of bringing about the DEIS system.
In his speech last night, the Minister referred to a fine report, Moving Beyond Educational Disadvantage, which was published by the committee in 2005. Essentially, it put up the pillars that were used to develop the DEIS scheme. It would not have happened as it did if that report had not been published. The people who worked on the committee should be acknowledged. I know that, in the past, the Minister has complimented the work of the committee in targeting educational disadvantage in working class areas. I note his commitment to refer to the report in the future.
Many of us have large numbers of DEIS schools in our constituencies. My constituency has 19 such schools, which is the second or third highest number of any constituency. They are very fine schools. The Minister and the Government said they would protect DEIS schools. I have not had an opportunity to acknowledge before now that such schools have been protected. Like others, I recognise that remarkable progress that has been made in DEIS schools. It is slow but it is very definite. Most of us are familiar with the report that came out last January. It praised the work that is taking place in DEIS schools.
I do not wish to ruffle the feathers of schoolteachers. I am sure they constitute a fine body of people. I always think they are like politicians, plumbers or any other group in the sense that some of them are very good and others are not so good. I would like to say, without being biased, that some of the principals and teachers in DEIS schools are the finest people in the education sector. They are working against the tide. It is the most difficult environment to be teaching in. They deserve great praise.
This morning, I attended the opening of a library at Holy Rosary Primary School, which is in my constituency. The library was opened by the President, Michael D. Higgins. It is interesting that it was opened today. Reference has been made to DEIS schools. The library in question, which is a fine one, is in a large converted prefab. It did not cost us anything as taxpayers because the parents in the area of this DEIS school organised the building, painting and stocking of the library. That was done in conjunction with South Dublin County Council’s county library, which is the finest library in the country. It is remarkable.
It is worth mentioning in that context that we are having this debate on World Book Day. That was not lost on the President, who tried to persuade the children of the value and importance of reading, particularly at an early age. Unfortunately, most working class children are reluctant to accept such encouragement. I was guilty of that in the past. It is great that we are concluding our Second Stage discussion on this legislation on World Book Day. I will conclude by restating my support for the amendments that are being made in this Bill.
Deputy Peter Mathews: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to contribute to this debate, as I was not on the list of speakers. I am pleased to have an opportunity to give every encouragement to the Minister. I thank him for responding to the need to reorganise the education system. He appreciates that he can understand what is happening on the ground by visiting small and large schools throughout the country. I commend my colleague, Deputy Catherine Byrne, on her tremendous insight into particular aspects of DEIS schools in the areas she represents.
I attended the opening of an extension to St. Mary’s national school in Stepaside the other day. Approximately 300 pupils from 30 different nationality backgrounds attend the school. It was a joyous experience to see the colourful artwork and craftwork on the walls of the school. I was uplifted by the vibe of the school, which comprises a cut stone building that is over 100 years old and a new building that adjoins it sympathetically and seamlessly, with wonderful light and space. When the children were singing songs and playing tunes on the recorder, they covered the old traditions of Ireland and the new traditions of the pop culture that travels across borders.
I would like to pick up on an aspect of what Deputy Catherine Byrne said. There are some DEIS schools in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown area. When I spoke to the principal of one of these schools for more than an hour recently, I was saddened to hear of her distress about the falling numbers at her school. It was quite similar to what Deputy Byrne described. It seems that certain primary schools, which are not perceived to be DEIS schools, have a magnetic draw. There is a suggestion that attending those schools is of assistance when it comes to getting places in certain secondary schools. That compounds the problem described by the Deputy.
It is sad that a principal and her team — I would describe them as human gold — are being demoralised by the depletion of pupil numbers at their school, which is being undermined by other schools that are nearer to a certain secondary school and perceived to be feeder schools for that school. I remind the Minister that we have an opportunity to stop this phenomenon. It should be stopped, if it can be. As Deputy Catherine Byrne said, perhaps we should stop using labels. We can give support to DEIS schools without using the word “DEIS”. We should merely say a school needs further investment in teachers and facilities. We should say we are doing something for a school because the need for it is apparent without giving a label to the school. Labels can be dangerous. They can become compounding.
I wish the Minister well as he continues to work in support of the education system. I remind him that when great people reflect on their lifetime’s work, regardless of the field of endeavour from which they come, they usually say they had wonderful teachers.
Deputy Peter Mathews: We need to do anything we can to help teachers grow to their full potential. We need to support, respect and value them as human gold. They are at the heart of the nation. Education means leading something out of a person. It involves the development of the person.
Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Ruairí Quinn): I thank the 29 Deputies, including myself, who have contributed to this Second Stage debate. If these closing remarks are taken into account, 30 speeches will have been made by the time this debate concludes. That is evidence of the genuine interest in education of a wide range of Deputies across all sections of this House. I cannot recall a previous occasion when a Second Stage debate involved so many speakers. We could probably have had more. A number of issues were raised during the debate. As they were raised in different ways, I will take them by theme, rather than citing the Deputies who raised them.
This Bill is different from the previous Bill of the same name. It does not refer to the community national schools that will come under the supervision of the VECs, which will soon be known as local education and training boards. As Members will be aware, we will introduce a comprehensive Bill to consolidate the nine existing Acts that relate to the VECs. This legislation will also consolidate more than 600 statutory instruments in order to provide for the new 16 local education and training boards which will be the successors to the VECs. It was deemed appropriate that the provision for the community national schools should be rooted in that legislation, along with all the other activities to be undertaken by the new education and training boards, rather than be established in a separate piece of legislation. There were good reasons that my predecessor wanted to afford it a statutory basis, although it has not been rolled out properly as yet. Currently, there are five and a further number will be announced soon, along with the structures for their boards of management and so on. I thank the Deputies for their contributions and their support for the measure.
Much concern was expressed by Members who were teachers in a previous life, so to speak, about the role of the Teaching Council. They were concerned that it has been established for quite some time; that it was given €5 million in start-up funding; and that it simply collects €90 from the 73,000 registered teachers and there is a question as to what is given to teachers in return. For the information of those Members who are teachers, for the information of the House and for the record, the Teaching Council will now become a proper self-regulating, professional organisation like the Medical Council or the Law Society or the architects’ professional body. The Teaching Council will police and maintain the standards of its own professional members.
Much lax and loose comment has been made about lazy and indifferent teachers, teachers who cannot be sacked and poor teaching performance. There have been complaints that teachers are a law unto themselves. This is a kind of easy soft talk which we have all heard. Section 30 of the Teaching Council Act will be activated by this Bill, albeit with a qualification and I will deal with the necessity for that qualification. The Teaching Council will have the power to ensure that not only are teachers registered, but they pay a variable fee as in the case of retired teachers who wish to remain registered or apprentice teachers who are not yet employed full-time. Most professions provide a differential fee cost depending on employment status. This is now a matter to be decided by the Teaching Council and the new council will come into existence later this month. I urge it to use its powers to address the criticisms. I will bring to the attention of the Teaching Council the very strident criticisms made by a number of teachers. Deputy O’Mahony from Fine Gael and Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan from the Technical Group are both former teachers and their criticisms were quite scathing of the role and relevance of the council. This is a task for the Teaching Council. Deputy Dowds noted that once one is probated, one is a qualified teacher. In my view, nobody is a permanently qualified anything because it is a continuous learning exercise and there has to be continual professional development in a rapidly changing world. It is right and proper that evidence of having participated in continuing professional development will be a requirement for continued registration with the Teaching Council, as I understand it. However, as I think I am obliged to do, I will be bringing to the attention of the new incoming board of the Teaching Council the criticisms and comments made by people who know what they are talking about because they are former teachers.
The question was raised as to why we have retreated from the absolutist position of only permitting a registered teacher to be paid with moneys from the State and therefore an unqualified teacher cannot be used. The answer is because, in some very extreme circumstances, the principal of a school will have the choice between sending those pupils home or closing the school. I issued a circular following the annual conferences of the teaching unions last Easter in which the regulations, guidelines and rules governing the facility and the possibility of such an occurrence were tightened. This will now have the force of law.
On the question of whether retired teachers should be re-employed in schools, in my view, they should not. There is now a differential rate of pay to discourage this practice and retired teachers who return will be paid at the basic rate of pay. Formerly, they were re-employed at the rate at which they had retired, the top rate. This practice has now been changed. On the question of whether a cosy relationship may exist between a new principal and a former principal, one can perhaps suspect this is so and it may be a case of the devil one knows. All these situations prevailed. It is the principal of a school and, by extension, the board of management who decides on who will be hired. We will be addressing this situation by empowering parents and asking schools to indicate the composition of their panels of reserve teachers. It is normal and reasonable in this day and age to encourage young teachers to be hired in those circumstances and for young teachers who have not been fully probated to be given the opportunity to overcome the catch-22 situation to which Deputy Dowds referred, that experience is needed to get a job.
We have not acceded to the request recently communicated to me to make amendments that would insist on the absolute necessity to employ only qualified teachers even on an emergency basis. I do not regard this as a practical measure. It was a bad piece of legislation when it was first enacted and I am making the necessary change now. As a result, we can now activate section 30 of the Teaching Council Act, which means the council can make it mandatory and can perform the role of a professional body for a profession such as teaching needs. If some teachers are not performing to a high standard, a complaint can be made to the Teaching Council and the council of peers will decide whether the complaint should be upheld or if the person can continue to be registered as a teacher. The issue of the disciplining and policing of the profession of teaching is now totally in the hands of the profession itself, which is where it should reside in my view. If a parent, school or citizen has a grouse about a particular teacher, they can now register that complaint and let the council proceed in the required manner.
The Bill changes the use of the word “agreement” to use of the word “consultation”. The employment control framework fixed in absolute terms the number of people in employment in the public sector, including teachers. If a teacher is redeployed as a result of being supernumerary in a school, in the past such individuals had a veto on where they would go because their agreement was essential. It was frequently the case that there would have been agreement between trade union and management sides but the individual concerned would refuse to be redeployed. I will deal with this matter in some detail in an amendment on Committee Stage and I have dealt with it in the other House. I am quite prepared to have a formal consultation with the social partners in the education space to achieve a clear idea of the exact meaning of consultation in this instance so that there is broad consensus. The absolutist position of former times will not apply, where an individual, de facto, had a veto on redeployment if he or she refused to agree. The real meat in the sandwich, so to speak, is that until such time as we have redeployed existing teachers from the panel to new locations and opportunities, we cannot hire new teachers. It is not as if we are free agents; in order to acquire new teachers into the system, all surplus teachers on redeployment panels must first be relocated. This is the nub of the question about agreement and consultation. I am quite happy to discuss this matter further on Committee Stage.
Many other issues have been raised in this debate which are not, as such, germane to this legislation but I will refer to them. Deputy Catherine Byrne made a very incisive contribution which is rooted in her own experience. We share adjoining constituencies and some of the area to which she referred used to be in the Dublin South-East constituency. The issue of stigmatisation has travelled with the DEIS label. The label of being from a disadvantaged area is chosen from a set of socio-economic criteria. One can be highly disadvantaged from a very wealthy family if one is not loved, cherished and minded. I got my knuckles rapped for saying that a child who goes to bed at night without having a story read to him or her is an abused child. I accept fully it is not the right use of the word “abuse”, because of other connotations, but it is certainly a deprived child.
Deputy Ruairí Quinn: An ignored child. That runs across the social spectrum. Perhaps the motivations in regard to delivering education equality in schools was properly constructed but perhaps we must look at the connotation and stigmatisation because there are unintended consequences, to which Deputy Mathews referred, where school X is not seen as a good feeder school for second level and so on. Those contributions are valuable and we will have an opportunity to talk about them as we go forward.
I refer to the issue of small schools. Deputy Mulherin said most small schools are in rural Ireland, although not all. She would be surprised to know there is a two-teacher school in Bluebell hiding behind an enormous church where at one by-election there were more canvassers outside the church than there were congregants inside it. One could put a Boeing 747 into the church. It was the first and only time I was ever outside it.
The value for money report, commissioned by my predecessor, Mary Coughlan, will be published in approximately the next three to four weeks. There is no fixed date yet. That is the time when there will be a debate around the issue of small schools, the cost of them, the relative merits and demerits of them, what we do about them and how we deal with the reality that citizens of the Republic living in isolated areas are entitled to access to primary education and whether they are in the same category as half a dozen schools less than 5 km from a provincial town.
I was in Drumshanbo last Friday on a constituency visit to Sligo and Leitrim. In 1975, five small rural schools in the vicinity of Drumshanbo voluntarily decided voluntarily to come together. I addressed a school of 230 pupils and 11 teachers with a whole array of support services, including an autism unit. It provided a mix and a range.
In a two-teacher or three-teacher school where the teacher is teaching two or three different classes, it can be a lottery. I believe it was Deputy Mathews who said we all know what school we went to but we will always remember the great teachers. In the nature of things, they are not all that great, although there are some that impress.
For example, a definition of a small school in New Zealand, which has a population base similar to ours, is 200 pupils. I am not going there but we need to look at countries such as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have similar cultures, backgrounds and traditions to ours to see how they deal with this issue. We will return to it after the value for money report has been debated.
Concern was expressed about some provisions of the Bill which recognise in law the fact on the ground and that speech and language therapy are services delivered by the HSE and not by the Department of Education and Skills. This is simply recognising the reality on the ground. I do not have the power to direct the HSE and there is a variation in the delivery of the same service in different parts of the country. If people have that experience I suggest they raise it with the Minister for Health.
That covers most of the issues we debated. We talked about giving preference to trained teachers, as distinct from retired teachers in temporary posts, and ensuring they are probated as much as possible. We talked about amending section 30 of the Teaching Council Act so that it can be activated and made real. In terms of industrial relations, we talked about the necessity to move from agreement to consultation in order to facilitate deployment.
Deputy Derek Keating: On a point of order, I had to go to a meeting so I missed the Minister’s concluding contribution. I made a contribution earlier but is it not unusual in circumstances where the Minister is addressing a particular issue in regard to education — I know he is passionate about the whole area — that there is nobody here from the Opposition?
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