Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills

Education (Amendment) Bill 2015 and Education (Parent and Student Charter) Bill 2016: Discussion

4:00 pm

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I want to remind Members and witnesses to please an féidir libh bhur teileafóin a mhúchadh. Turn off your telephones or switch them to flight mode. Any statement you make might not be audible on the television, and we would hate for that to happen. Mobile phones interfere with the sound system and make it difficult for parliamentary reporters, who work so hard to report the meeting. Television coverage and web streaming is also very badly affected.

Today's meeting takes place so that the joint committee can continue its scrutiny of two pieces of legislation - the Education (Amendment) Bill 2015 and pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of the Education (Parent and Student Charter) Bill 2016.

Ar son an choiste, ba bhreá liom fáilte a chur roimh gach duine de na finnéithe atá ag an gcruinniú inniu. The Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, is represented by Mr. John Boyle and Ms Anne McElduff. The Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI, is represented by its president, Ms Joanne Irwin, and by Mr. David Duffy and Mr. John MacGabhann. The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland, ASTI, is represented by its president, Mr. Ed Byrne; its general secretary, Mr. Kieran Christie, and Ms Moira Leyden. The Irish Second-Level Students Union is represented by Ms Jane Hayes-Nally, some of whose colleagues are in the Visitors Gallery. The National Parents Council Post Primary is represented byMr. Paul Beddy and Mr. Paul Rolston.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. However, if they are directed by the Chairman or me to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Any submission or opening statement made to the committee will be published on its website after the meeting. We are very grateful for the work the delegates have put in to prepare for this meeting and thank them for attending.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I invite the various speakers to make their opening statements, beginning with Ms Leyden on behalf of the ASTI. Ms Irwin will speak on behalf of TUI, Ms Jane Hayes-Nally on behalf of the Irish Second-Level Students Union, Mr. Rolston on behalf of the National Parents Council Post Primary and Mr. John Boyle ar son INTO.

Ms Moira Leydon:

I am very conscious that it is rather late in the day. We started late and have a full house. I will, therefore, use the Obama technique, that is, say three things and try to say them efficiently and effectively.

My broad opening remark is that the ASTI broadly welcomes the legislation. We have a preference for one approach, on which I will elaborate. The measures are reflective of the changes in our society and a timely and judicious response to aspects of the education system that are not perceived to be working as well as they might be.

In the past decade we have introduced what I would describe as a strong accountability framework in education. Each year the inspectorate conducts over 1,000 visits to schools at both primary and second level. Eight hundred reports are published on our website every year. We have the Teaching Council fitness-to-practise guidelines, etc. This is really just another part of the jigsaw in making sure there is not only equality in the education system but also, more importantly, accountability, transparency and fairness. That is very much the frame within which the draft legislation has been developed and within which we perceive it.

With regard to the proposals made in the charter legislation, they address what the trade unions have stated explicitly during the years. We need a national standardised and common complaints procedure across the system. At present, there are voluntary agreements between the management bodies and the teacher unions that differ from sector to sector. Certainly, the commitment in the charter to bring forward statutory national guidelines will remove many anomalies and certainly make my life and that of my trade union official colleagues easier because we are dealing with a transparent system. It is also reflective of what are perceived, unfortunately, to be weaknesses in the system.

Deputy Jim Daly has to be commended for the way in which he kick-started this process. We do not actually agree that his legislation is possibly the best way to proceed, but I believe he has done us all a very valuable service by kick-starting the debate. The reason we would prefer the charter legislation is that we believe it is more comprehensive. On the one hand, it is about dealing with complaints, but, more significantly, from the perspective of legislators, it is trying to change cultures in order that complaints would not emerge in the first place. It is trying to embed better communication, accountability and transparency cultures in schools. That is really what legislation should do; it should not micromanage problems; rather, when one is dealing with wide public sector social goods such as education, it should seek to direct cultural change.

The second point we make to Deputy Jim Daly is that the proposal made in his legislation to have a separate ombudsman for children would, in the first instance, not be so practical. More importantly, it would undermine what this society has struggled to achieve in the past 20 years, but we are getting there pretty well. I refer to an holistic focus on the child. The bit of the child that goes to school is the same bit that may need to go to a social worker, the HSE or other body. The current model of the Ombudsman for Children is the most appropriate, particularly in the light of national strategy in Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, which is a very integrated public policy approach to children.

I have just two more points to make. To quote an aphorism always attributed to Einstein, it is the essence of lunacy to keep doing the same thing and expecting something different. I am very much putting on my trade union hat. This cultural change that the legislation is aimed at achieving cannot and will not succeed unless we seriously consider the way in which schools are run and facilitated to run with resources and middle management. My trade union colleagues will have strong points to make on that issue. If the legislation is expected to succeed in spirit, we cannot keep doing the same old thing, namely, bring in another model of change, while not actually supporting the internal processes to deliver that change.

Trade unions are extremely concerned to ensure the legislation will get the balance of fairness right.

Mr. Ed Byrne:

From a teacher's perspective, I believe there is deep distrust. The Teaching Council fitness-to-practise arrangement is being bedded in. Garda vetting is ongoing and not yet fully implemented, yet we are here talking about moving forward with some more legislation in a manner that does not always take into account the perspective of a teacher. Implementation of section 28 of the Education Act was delayed repeatedly. Perhaps that is why we have reached this impasse where we believe we have to go down a legislative road.

Teachers are suspicious. As my colleague said, there is an inspectorate. There are eight separate modes of inspection, which are a form of oversight. The Teaching Council is another layer of oversight. Some might justifiably say it is overkill. I am concerned about the capacity within the system to implement the legislation correctly and properly and allow schools to get on with developing the very much needed parent and student charter. It must, however, come about with the requisite resources.

Unfortunately, Deputy Jim Daly's Bill would lead to more confrontation. The experience of confrontation and the adversarial process in Ireland is that the only people to benefit are those in the legal profession. That is why we would prefer the parent and student charter. These are days pon which policymakers have to take into account the practitioners. Sometimes what leaves Marlborough Street as gold turns to iron pyrite in the hands of others. We should be careful as we move forward.

Ms Joanne Irwin:

The TUI represents more than 16,000 practitioners, including teachers who work in the education and training boards and in community, comprehensive and voluntary secondary schools. The TUI is of the view that the two proposed pieces of legislation are contradictory and mutually exclusive. We contend that the Education (Amendment) Bill 2015 is mistaken, if well-intentioned, in approach, that the establishment of an ombudsman for education is unnecessary and would duplicate existing offices, and that any legislative change that may be required can be adequately accommodated in the proposed Education (Parent and Student Charter) Bill 2016, suitably revised.

The TUI supports the achievement in practice of the principle of appropriate involvement by students and parents in determining the culture and processes of a school. Our members - teachers, including principal teachers - have a professional commitment to the creation and maintenance of welcoming, inclusive and democratic school communities that are an integral and dynamic part of the social infrastructure of the broader communities they serve. In this context, making legislative provision for a charter is worthy of consideration. Such a charter, however, would have to reflect a balance of the rights and responsibilities of all parties. Moreover, a charter that imposed additional administrative and/or legalistic responsibilities on schools that lack the capacity to discharge them would be counterproductive. A number of our specific observations have their origins in this concern about unsustainable demands.

The TUI is at something of a disadvantage as the heads of the Education (Parent and Student Charter) Bill 2016, while proposing an expanded role for the Ombudsman for Children, do not provide the level of detail that would enable us to assess it definitively this stage. Schools are poorly resourced in the context of administrative and middle management structures. Boards of management rely on volunteers and there can be no realistic expectation that this will not continue to be the case. We would advise against additional legislative requirements that would increase the burden on boards.

We ask the committee to note that, under the current section 28 of the Education Act 1998, it is open to the Minister to prescribe procedures to allow grievances of “students, or their parents, relating to the students’ school” to be submitted and processed and to allow the “parent of a student or, in the case of a student who has reached the age of 18 years, the student, to appeal to the board against a decision of a teacher or other member of staff of a school”. The TUI has for several years urged successive Ministers for Education and Skills to prescribe procedures under this section of the Act, noting that procedures are available for him to prescribe. Were the Minister to confirm these procedures as the prescribed procedures under section 28, the sensible and logical aspiration of “determining appeals and resolving grievances in the school concerned” could be realised without imposing further bureaucratic demands on already overburdened schools. The TUI would again ask the Minister to engage the relevant parties, including representatives of parents and students, in discussions aimed at suitably adjusting the existing sectoral procedures and to approve the procedures that emerge from those discussions.

The Education (Parent and Student Charter) Bill seems to envisage each school developing its own procedures, following the guidelines that the Minister will issue in this regard. This would be enormously wasteful of very scarce resources. Some 4,000 separate attempts to reinvent the wheel in 4,000 schools are unnecessary and will lead to inconsistency, contradiction and unfairness. Litigation will almost certainly follow. Our message is simple: there is no need to reinvent the wheel. A further concern is that the general scheme seems strangely oblivious of the existence of robust processes to deal with complaints in regard to the conduct or competence of teachers. Those procedures have legislative underpinning under section 24 of the Education Act 1998 and Part 5 of the Teaching Council Act 2001.

It is imperative that any legislative change or initiative must not create further administrative workload, particularly for principal teachers. The effective functioning of schools as communities of learning is already being suffocated by burgeoning administrative demands. The proposed legislation has the potential to add new and unnecessary layers of complexity and to give rise to a more legalistic culture that will inevitably lead to increased cost for schools and the Exchequer.

A recurrent feature of legislation in the education sphere is the emergence of unintended consequences when it comes to implementation. Legislation that seeks equity is often frustrated in its implementation by rooted societal inequalities and by the exclusionary practices of some schools. Hence, schools that are selective regarding enrolment are least affected by equity-based legislation and those that are most inclusive are most affected. The greatest onus is placed on schools that are open, democratic, inclusive and most responsive to national policy. The TUI has a real concern that, once again, the greatest challenge will be faced by the schools that embrace the full, rich diversity in the student cohort and that they will have to face the challenge without the necessary resources. Furthermore, the introduction of a new and expanded governance requirement under the charter means that significant additional funding will be required to provide training to school staff and boards of management.

The proposed legislation seems, on the face of it, to propose a culture of culpability, predicated on the misconception that schools are responsible for all of society’s failings and that schools can somehow remediate family dysfunctionality where it occurs. This is unfair to schools that are struggling to manage after a decade of cutbacks which have left the system threadbare. There is a fine balance that must be struck between, on one hand, the appropriate remit of a school in terms of supporting and empowering an individual student or parent and, on the other, the overarching requirement that a school provide a safe environment for the greater student body. It is regrettable but undeniable, for example, that some schools have to manage and deal with unacceptable and occasionally violent behaviour. This must be taken into account in a charter, which must balance the rights of students and parents with concomitant responsibilities.

The proposed legislation also seems to assume that a large volume of complaints and grievances are not being adequately addressed at present. The TUI disputes this assumption. The Ombudsman for Children reports that there have been 4,000 complaints about schools to his office in the past 14 years. That constitutes fewer than 300 complaints per year in the context of 4,000 schools, serving 917,000 students, and, viewed objectively, constitutes a very low rate of complaint.

That is our initial opening statement. We will obviously have further views when we see the terms of the legislation.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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Go raibh maith agat. The TUI's views were very clearly expressed. As we have a busy meeting, I ask all speakers to keep to the allotted time as far as possible. I call Ms Jane Hayes-Nally of the Irish Second-Level Students Union.

Ms Jane Hayes-Nally:

Good afternoon. I am president of the Irish Second-Level Students Union. We are the umbrella body for second-level student councils in Ireland and we aim to represent and connect second-level students, ensuring that the voice of the Irish student is heard and striving for equality and democracy within the education system. As a national student representative, I am delighted to present to the committee and to discuss and consider an item of legislation which serves, as the name implies, to define the rights and privileges of students as well as parents.

The principles of the legislation for the parent and student charter bring to the forefront the principles and priorities that the organisation for which I work and the students I represent have always exemplified. We were delighted, therefore, to watch the progress and advancement being made to further the involvement of and respect for two essential stakeholder groups in the school community. It is true, though, that students are affected more than any other cohort by the management of a school. Students are the main beneficiaries of the second-level education system and it is paramount that their voice is heard in order to ensure that any decisions made are in the best interests of the student. The only way to ensure that the decisions made are of benefit to students is to ensure that students maintain meaningful participation and consultation in any development or evaluation of such decisions. The only way you will know what it is like to be a second-level student in Ireland is if you are a second-level student in Ireland. Things change so quickly and the experiences of young people in terms of their education are vastly different with every couple of years. It is important to stay cognisant of this fact as we move forward to create a better education system in Ireland.

I believe in the ability of this Bill to change the way schools serve their students. The end product of the Bill will help to establish a structure where students are recognised and, most importantly, supported as equal partners in education. However, we have massive reservations and concerns regarding the proposed plans to develop guidelines for this Bill. As it stands, the Minister will invite the partners - the national parent councils, school management bodies, teacher unions and the school principals networks or associations - to participate in a working party. To quote the

explanatory documents, “Part of the preparatory work will involve capturing the voice of the child particularly through engagement with student councils and national associations representative of students.” This effectively excludes students, even though the aim is to recognise them as equal partners in education, by letting us only be part of the preparations but not an equal stakeholder on the working party. We would like to be recognised as equal partners and have the opportunity to work with other partners in education in order to examine and influence how the details of this charter will look when finished.

Applying this integral principle to the entirety of the process of this legislation, it makes sense that, under head 3, the associations representing second-level students should be included in the group of educational stakeholders, rather being consulted on the sidelines. We welcome the amendment to section 27 of the Education Act 1998 to change the requirement on a student council from one of promoting the interests of the school to the promoting of the interests of the students of the school. The interests of the students will be better served if the student council is supported to promote the interests of students as we believe the student council is best placed to do so.

There are often conversations regarding representation of student councils. We are fully aware that the most vulnerable, the student most in need, will not often put themselves forward for election to a student council but a student council is still the most important element in ensuring that the voice of those students are heard.

Last week we were in Cork to consult with second-level students as we plan to create our own mental health strategy. Students at this event, my peers, stated they are more likely to turn to a friend or a fellow student for help than they are to a teacher or parent. These were young boys from all-boys schools in the surrounding area and while they would be hesitant to talk to anybody in regard to mental health, they said it would be peers to whom they would turn.

Having a structure of peer support, where students can support one another in ensuring their voices are heard and issues that are affecting them are raised, is absolutely integral to ensuring the needs of our most vulnerable students are brought forward. This is even more crucial in schools in disadvantaged areas where it may be more difficult to involve parents.

The training offered by the Irish Second-Level Students Union, ISSU, aims to improve student councils in their ability to carry out their functions. We aim to train as many students as possible to engage but we are also bound by our limited funding.

As we review the amendment to section 27 of the Act, we are faced with another basic operational change, which would transform student voice. Unfortunately, in too many Irish second-level schools, student councils are subject to the approval of the board of management, which are currently given the liberty of dissolving the student council in the Education Act. A few days ago I received the e-mail below from a student describing his experience with student voice:

I am in transition year and I am writing on the behalf of the students at my school as we do not have a student council.

Early last year our student council was disbanded quite suddenly. As you can imagine this shocked and annoyed a lot of students as we felt we were not represented fairly. This year our transition year co-ordinator put the challenge to us to restart the student council, so we wrote a letter to our principal. Myself and several other transition year students then met with our principal to talk about the issue. She told us that the student council, as well as the green school committee and other committees, had been disbanded because of the current teachers’ union conflict. I am, however, not satisfied with this answer as I have spoken with students and teachers from other schools and they all have student councils. She did however suggest that we could have an unofficial "student's voice", but this has not really worked out. I was wondering if we have any rights as students to be represented by a student council and if there is anything the ISSU can do to help us.

If students really do have the right to be included in decisions which affect them, as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child declares, then students should be fully entitled to have a student council, regardless of any issues with other stakeholders in education. If student councils are an option which are at the discretion of the people who happen to sit on a board of management, this right cannot be fully realised.

To further this important aspect of school management, we very much welcome the ability of the Minister to issue directives to boards of management as part of head 4. However we believe, as was mentioned the last time this committee sat, that there are fundamental difficulties with regards to the composition of the board of management. The management of a school should be a process where students, teachers, parents and patrons work together to continually examine and solve the issues and problems facing any one school. Students should be aware of the issues being discussed and have an equal vote to the rest of the stakeholders. Currently, there are a bare few second-level schools where a platform for this kind of partnership is encouraged or supported. From a democratic perspective, this badly needs to be addressed. We support the principle of participation of children in decision making but to fully implement this principle, students need to, first, be included in a real and tangible way, by sitting at the table where the decisions are made. It has always been one of our core beliefs that a student representative should sit on the board of management and we will continue to advocate for this opportunity until it is practice within every second level school in Ireland.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I am not going to stop Ms Hayes-Nally but I have been more lenient to her than her teacher colleagues so if she could summarise the rest, I would appreciate it as we are under huge time pressure.

Ms Jane Hayes-Nally:

In terms of an ombudsman, we would have our reservations but ultimately feel there is a need to create a specific office that will deal with complaints in regard to education. Our concerns lie with whether one office can effectively investigate a complaint and the current capacity of the office to conduct investigations in a timely fashion. We also have reservations regarding the costs.

This charter allows for a real opportunity but our message today is very clear. We seek equality in consultation, equality in a right to organise, to be heard, equality in the right to participate in decision making, especially when these decisions affect us more than anyone else.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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Thank you. The full submission will be put on the committee's website and will be taken into account by committee members. I will call on Mr. Paul Rolston to speak next.

Mr. Paul Rolston:

The committee will be pleased to learn that our presentation is relatively short.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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We are here as long as it takes but unfortunately a lot of other speakers have to come in.

Mr. Paul Rolston:

I appreciate that. Our Constitution enshrines the rights of parents as the primary educators. We are happy to see this move.

The National Parents Council, post-primary is grateful to the joint committee for the opportunity to contribute to the pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of an education (parent and student charter) Bill 2016.The Constitution enshrines a parent’s right to educate his or her child. It states that parents are the primary educators of their children. Research shows that parental involvement in schools leads to better educational outcomes for children. We believe the proposed Bill will create a more inclusive, open and transparent educational system. Parents want the best educational system that enriches each student's life and produces an individual confident that he or she has been well served and prepared for life as a young adult in his or her community. Thus every student attains an education that realises his or her full potential and can contribute positively to society in his or her adult life.

We appreciate and support the positivity of the proposals in the parent and student charter, as it places students in the centre of school life and respects and values the role of parents in education. Under the parent and student charter, schools will develop a listening culture and will actively seek input from parents on school policies and plans. Hopefully this will include areas like subject choice, communications, feedback etc. Schools should be open about their performance and transparent around school costs. School costs cannot be a barrier to participation in the free education system. Consultation with parents on the cost of delivering academic and extra-curricular activities and other services, as well as the cost of books, school uniforms and so on is very important and is required.

Many parents feel excluded from having input into the educational system at secondary level. The number of complaints was referred to earlier. We want to be consulted on all aspects of our children’s education and development and wish to work jointly with schools management, staff and students on improving communication. The majority of queries we receive from parents relate to guidelines around grievance procedures in post-primary schools. Parents are unsure about how to address problems and issues and are unaware of their right to appeal decisions. A great number of parents who have engaged with us on this matter have described themselves as feeling alone and intimidated by the process. Parents are often afraid to raise an issue with their school fearing possible reprisal. We hope that more parental consultation and involvement will ameliorate such problems. However, if problems do arise, there needs to be a clear process to enable parents and schools to resolve issues locally together rather than having to resort to official procedures. Should a complaint escalate however, and be brought to the attention of the ombudsman, the ombudsman’s office must be properly resourced in order to deal with the issue.

The ability for us to communicate effectively with all parents at a school is also a matter of serious concern and we feel strongly that every school must facilitate an independent communication conduit between the parents association and the parent body at that school.

The National Parents Council, post-primary, welcomes the opportunity to be involved in the consultation along with students, school management bodies and staff and other representatives in order that we can facilitate proper conversation and detailed consultation. Since the announcement of the Bill in December 2016, we have commenced a consultation process with parents through our constituent bodies. This Thursday we will publish a national survey for parents of post-primary students on our website . On 8 April we will host a free information event in St. Tiernan’s community school in Dublin, which again will provide parents with an opportunity to have their voices heard.

We look forward to sharing the results of the feedback with the Department of Education and Skills and with the joint committee.

Mr. John Boyle:

As vice president of the INTO and on behalf of our members and our union I thank the Joint Committee on Education and Skills for the invitation to express our views on the two proposed Bills.

At the outset, we note that the two Bills are somewhat contradictory. The Education (Amendment) Bill 2015 is providing for an ombudsman for education and an appeal mechanism against decisions of boards of management in respect of grievances against schools, while the proposed parent and student charter is proposing various amendments to the legislation governing the Ombudsman for Children to enhance the role of that office in dealing with school matters. The INTO is not in favour of two offices of ombudsmen having responsibility for similar functions with regard to the operation of schools. This is unnecessary and would prove cumbersome, costly and confusing. The focus should be on supporting and resourcing schools in the carrying out of their functions as opposed to requiring accountability for the very same matters in a range of fora.

Systems of accountability should be clear, effective, streamlined and not duplicated across different fora. Accountability requirements must also have particular regard to the statutory role of boards of management and the provisions of the Education Act 1998. That Act prescribes that it is the statutory duty of boards of management to manage their schools. In respect of that statutory responsibility, boards are already accountable to their patrons and the Minister. These provisions are re-affirmed in the governance manual for primary schools and in Department Circular 52/2015. Accordingly, the INTO would have significant reservations about section 66 of the Education (Amendment) Bill which is proposing a right of appeal to an ombudsman for education "against a decision of the board in respect of an appeal or grievance made to the board". The INTO notes that the Bill is silent on the detail of how such appeals would be conducted. In terms of fair procedures, any de novoappeal would inevitably require a full re-run of the hearing. That would be a just and fair process. The INTO reiterates that it has serious reservations about any such approach which could unnecessarily prolong matters for the parties involved and run counter to the principle of finality in decision-making and the statutory functions of boards of management. However, the INTO draws a distinction between a full de novoappeal and a review on procedural grounds. Similar clarification is required in relation to the proposed expansion of the role of the Ombudsman for Children.

In regard to the proposed general scheme of the Education (Parent and Student Charter) Bill 2016, there does not appear to be any so-called ground up demand for this, and many schools will see the proposals as seeking to address no known problem. Nevertheless, the INTO is not opposed to formalising the terms of relations as currently exist at school level. In this regard, we strongly urge the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, and the committee to note the evidence of the high levels of trust which are placed in Irish schools and educators, as evidencedinter aliain the chief inspector’s reports, the OECD’s Education at a Glance report and surveys commissioned by the Teaching Council. The INTO submits that the culture and tradition of trust must not be damaged by over-formalising and specification of rights, processes or both.

The culture of the Irish primary school system is one of open engagement with parents or guardians and the school community. In this context, it has always been the case that schools operate an open door policy, fostering positive dealings with parents and guardians. Parents and guardians are encouraged to come to schools before or after the school day. Teachers meet parents informally and formally every day. There are regular parent-teacher meetings once or twice a year. This is the culture in which primary schools operate. The INTO submits that this positive engagement culture should be fully acknowledged and supported in any new proposed parent and student charter.

In 1993, a huge amount of work was done between management bodies, the Catholic Primary School Managers Association, the Church of Ireland Board of Education, Educate Together and An Foras Pátrúnachta to agree a formal parental complaints procedure. That procedure is in place and has worked very well in schools. The first paragraph of the existing complaints procedure puts it in a nutshell. It states: “The purpose of this procedure is to facilitate the resolution of difficulties where they may arise in an agreed and fair manner.” The emphasis is on the word “resolve”. Parents or guardians are encouraged to raise their concerns informally with the relevant teacher in the first instance, as is right and proper. If the complaint is not resolved, it goes to the board of management following a few short steps. The existing complaints procedure fully complies with fair procedures and due process. It is incremental in approach and it balances opportunities for repeated informal attempts at resolution.

Parents or guardians were not party to the discussion on the complaints procedure in 1993. Several years ago the INTO participated in round-table discussions convened by the Department on this issue. Unfortunately, the results of that engagement have not been published. While attempts were made by the education partners, particularly at primary level, to develop procedures under section 28, it is timely and fitting that this now be progressed. Existing local complaints procedures have been developed and agreed between school management bodies and the teacher unions.

The big issue for the INTO is that if there are to be new procedures, there would be a general agreement reached between the education partners on a one size fits all procedure for our 3,250 schools. There are huge issues in schools-----

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I ask the witness to sum up.

Mr. John Boyle:

I will. There are huge issues in schools, primarily with workload. As well as a charter being put into place for students and for parents, the role, rights and responsibilities of the teacher also need to be enshrined in charter.

We thank the committee. Members should have our submission, and will be receiving an amended version.

One part of this legislation will probably be necessary. We hope to engage with the committee and legislators as the Bill continues toward fruition.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Mr. Boyle. I will now invite members to ask questions. Although I cannot tell members what to say or do, we should remember that the purpose of the meeting is to elicit information and clarify what has been said already. The witnesses have presented very clearly.

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the witnesses for their presentations. As a teacher for 12 years, I could identify with many of their observations, especially in terms of the workload and paperwork. It is pragmatic that we look at the implications such a Bill may have in terms of legal costs for the Exchequer at a time when things are very frail and when our schools badly need resources that have been withdrawn from them. I agree with all of those points and I thank the witnesses again.

Photo of Jim DalyJim Daly (Cork South West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the contributors for making their time available and bringing their expertise and experience to help guide us in our deliberations.

I always quote Ruairí Quinn: "Our job is to legislate." We have to take advice from the various interests, vested and otherwise, and then we have to do the right thing.

There are a couple of issues I would like to address with regard to the Education (Amendment) Bill, which I sponsored. The Teachers Union of Ireland states that 75% of the complaints received by the Ombudsman for Children were deemed outside of his remit. That has always been the issue. If the Ombudsman for Children is to be accepted as an advocate for education, somebody who is going to enhance and protect all partners, I can appreciate how it appears that an ombudsman for education would add another layer of bureaucracy and another layer of openness and transparency. If it did add another layer of openness and transparency, it should be very welcome. We are all aware of the horrific events in Tuam back in the day. Everybody wondered why nobody said anything. What I am trying to do here is bring accountability. No one should be afraid of accountability.

As a former principal, I am from a teaching background. I do not think that 95 % or 98 % of teachers have anything to fear from an ombudsman for education. It is not about making life difficult for them, it is about enhancing and recognising their role. It is about vindicating their rights in a lot of cases. Even when they are accused of things that they are not guilty of, it is important that there is somebody there to hear them.

I do not accept the claim somebody made today that the boards of management are accountable to patrons and the Minister. It is well known that if a parent writes to the Minister to make a complaint about the board of management, the first thing the Minister will say is that he has no role or function relating to a board of management. I therefore reject that claim.

To return to the advocacy role of an ombudsman for education, my issue with the Ombudsman for Children is that his remit is too narrow, as is evident from 75% of the complaints. Somebody said - it might have been the TUI representative but I apologise if I am wrong - it is only 300 complaints per year in the context of 4,000 schools and 917,000 students. However, the vast majority of parents would not dream of contacting the Ombudsman for Children with a complaint about their school or the board of management. They would not be aware of it as an avenue. Certainly in my role as a public representative I have advised several people but otherwise it would never dawn on them. They just get frustrated and go home. Some are very capable and use it but many are not aware of it.

An ombudsman for education would be somebody who is specifically qualified in the area of education and who would understand education and be devoted to it. The person would understand the Education Acts to the letter, the constitution of boards of management and the rights of teachers. Teachers are victims in our schools as well, in a minority of cases. I absolutely accept that trust in schools and in the school system is hugely intact. This is not a statement that people do not have trust in our school system. I am referring to the minority of cases, the few occurrences not of bad apples but just where things go wrong when somebody does not do their job and the accountability to the parent in that situation, as opposed to the board of management where the principal tells the board, "There is nothing here, so move on". The vast majority of principals are superb, overworked and overloaded. This is not an attack on them but a recognition of them.

However, there are teachers in our system who require the assistance and guidance of an ombudsman. Such an ombudsman could advocate for the rights of the teacher. A teacher cannot go to the Ombudsman for Children. They are over the age of 18 years and are not children. We have the Pensions Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for the Defence Forces. Why can we not have a dedicated ombudsman for the largest sector with the largest organisation and largest cohort of people to vindicate the rights of all the partners? The principals can be victims of their boards of management. This is about somebody who is exclusively committed and dedicated to education and knows it inside out. That is not the remit of the Ombudsman for Children. That is what I am trying to achieve for this huge sector. The ombudsman could be an advocate against the Government. For example, the ombudsman could lobby the Government on why the Education for Persons with Special Education Needs, EPSEN, Act has been in place for so many years and is not yet implemented. The role of an ombudsman for education would be to bang the drum, day in and day out, to ask the Government to do what it should be doing to vindicate the rights of children with special educational needs.

That is what I envisage with an ombudsman for education. I believe the witnesses have not looked at this from the right angle when they express a fear that this is something that would be unwelcome, cause more bureaucracy and accountability, require more answering and so forth. What if one asked the Ombudsman for Children for his view on the current situation with junior certificate reform? He does not have a view on that. He is not qualified in that area. However, an ombudsman for education would roll up his or her sleeves, get involved and make a statement on it. Such an ombudsman would take on board the views of all the partners and would be qualified to do so. That is what I am seeking.

There is a budget of approximately €9 billion for this sector. We could afford an ombudsman from that €9 billion budget. To put it in context, the Ombudsman for Children costs approximately €2 million per year. There are approximately 5,000 children in State care and about one quarter of that number require a voice in court. We spend €16 million on that, yet we spend only €2 million on giving every other child in the country a voice. This proposal is not something to be feared. It is not an attack on the education system or about hanging out to dry teachers or boards of management. It is about vindicating the rights of all the partners in education and having a suitably qualified professional person who will ensure the Government produces timely legislative responses to current issues. Those issues could be teachers' rights, teachers' qualification issues or issues where qualifications are not recognised.

An ombudsman for education is all-encompassing, so it is a narrow focus to suggest subsuming it into the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. That misses the point completely and does not do the teaching profession, which the organisations represent and for which I have enormous regard as I come from that background, any justice either. Teachers can be victims of fellow staff members, their principals or the boards of management. Where do they turn? I accept they turn to the organisations represented by the witnesses, but that is not their job. They should not have to be rolling up their sleeves in that regard. If there was an independent, suitably qualified, professional ombudsman for education to deal with these issues, it would be a win-win for everybody. I ask the witnesses to re-evaluate their approach to this on that basis.

I thank Ms Jane Hayes-Nally for her questions. I have addressed the issue of cost. The cost is minuscule in the greater scheme. If there is a budget of €9 billion, spending €1 million or €2 million of that sum on ensuring better outcomes for everybody involved is a pittance. We should not be hanging ourselves on the cost or saying that it will take from delivery of other services. One of the witnesses made a statement about all the other services that are under pressure. This would not take from those services in any way, shape or form. The Office of the Ombudsman for Children does not have the capacity to deal with the education sector. The health service has the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, and other bodies. Education deserves this and it is time we all accepted that, as opposed to feeling fear about it and knocking it on the head.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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I gave Deputy Jim Daly some latitude because it is his Bill and it was important for him to make that contribution. However, we are trying to elicit the views of the witnesses. Does anybody else wish to speak?

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the witnesses. I complimented the Deputy on the last occasion for starting this conversation and I do so again today. I am heartened by the presentations, both on the last occasion and today, that this is not a serious issue. Most of the problems that arise are dealt with at local level and the infrastructure is in place to do that. However, it is clear there is an issue when it is not possible to resolve a matter at local level. Putting a mechanism in place to deal with such situations is the challenge we face. Based on the contributions I have heard, I do not underestimate the challenge of trying to get to a point where there is consensus on this. The witnesses have highlighted many issues. I am not saying they are unwarranted, as they are, but it puts into sharp focus the challenge the committee faces in trying to get consensus on this issue.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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I welcome the witnesses and thank them for their submissions. I feel extremely ambivalent as to what is the right thing to do. I agree with much of what Deputy Jim Daly said but I also understand the issue. I tend to look at matters through the lens of class, disadvantage and DEIS schools. My initial reaction is there is a huge need for an ombudsman with regard to those areas, especially when there are parents and families in communities who would struggle to advocate for themselves. In fact, sometimes as they do not even realise they are being short-changed or mistreated, complaints will never be made. Sometimes, too, they do not know they have a right to make a complaint about their child's education or how their child is being treated.

I can give an example, and I was quite proud of the students concerned. In the past few months, four students from a Tallaght school contacted me about a suspension each of them had received which they did not feel was warranted. They wanted to know what to do so they contacted me on Facebook. I was delighted they took the initiative to contact me. When I contacted the school and went through the school's policies it turned out they were right. They should not have been suspended from school. Two of them are in leaving certificate year and the policy and procedure of the school had not been followed. I tried to help their parents to go to the school and appeal that decision for their children. It was the same teacher who had done this on a single day in the school. The parents told me what the school had told them. It was said about one child that as he was a senior student he was suspended because he should be setting an example for the school and that the school did not follow policy and procedure if it was a senior student. That is a ridiculous thing to say, but this type of thing is happening all the time. The parents are coming away with this information and not realising that they are not being given a logical argument. It is just teachers trying to justify the decision they made on that day. When I tried to support the parents in going to the board of management they were fearful. They did not want to do it. They did not feel confident enough. They did not think they had the ability or the language to go to the board to advocate and fight that. The issue is dealing with such situations.

There is also the matter of student councils. If one conducts an audit of schools that claim to have student councils one will find it is not true. There are no student councils and they are not meeting. The students do not have a voice. My daughter, who was a student representative, used to follow her teacher around the school asking when a student council meeting would be held when they were not taking place.

I feel there is a need for something such as an education ombudsman.

We also have people continuing in education beyond the age of 18, such as people with intellectual disabilities or those doing further learning. Where does that fall in terms of complaints procedures with the children's ombudsman? Is there another avenue for those complaints? There is a broader realm of education beyond the age of 18 which does not fall into the remit of the children's ombudsman.

Ms Leydon made a very important point about policy needing to create a culture shift. While I think that is right, I do not know whether this Bill achieves it. I do not think we can scare teachers into behaving or teaching differently.

I would love input as to what type of policies can move us to the point at which teachers change their culture. Resources and capital are missing from many schools, but that should not change the attitude of the teacher to the children. The stress that teachers are under is having an effect on the students. While the financial support must be in place, something has to be done in the meantime in the absence of resources in order that children are not losing out. I feel some ambivalence on this, although I am taking on what the witnesses are saying. My instinct is to protect those most marginalised and most disadvantaged. I might have rung up an ombudsman a few times in the past five years if he had been in place.

Photo of Jim DalyJim Daly (Cork South West, Fine Gael)
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The National Parents Council did not give any view on the ombudsman. Does Mr. Rolston have a view?

Mr. Paul Rolston:

We addressed it within our submission. Our view would be that there has to be adequate facility, whether that be a new ombudsman's office or somebody in a current role. We feel very strongly that the rights that this parents' charter should bring would make that available. We do not have a position as to whether it should be one or the other. The provision of adequate facility should be in place.

Ms Anne McElduff:

I hear what Deputy Daly is saying about an education ombudsman being there to advocate for everybody. However, he is presenting a contradictory view about how an ombudsman for education would work. There are many advocates and Senator Ruane has articulated some of the reasons we need them. The arguments are for more resources for special needs, smaller class sizes, more relief for teaching principals in order that they can interact with parents, and more delegated posts in schools. It is the resources we need, not the advocacy.

As presented, the Bill is solely an appeal mechanism for parents and students for complaints which currently are dealt with at school level. This is a further appeal on top of that. We think that is unnecessary. It will end up in multiple hearings, which will cost a huge amount of time and take the focus away from resources, supports and resolution mechanisms. We want to hear the concerns and complaints of parents. We want to be open about that and to address it. However, we need to do so effectively and not through multiple layers of appeals. The Education (Amendment) Bill as structured would end up like that, according to my reading of it. Section 66 in particular, as it is written, raises serious concerns for us in terms of practicalities.

Ms Moira Leydon:

Deputy Daly is obviously very passionate about this but I feel there is a misplaced focus. Like my colleague, Ms McElduff, I read the Bill and interpreted it as an appeals mechanism dealing with complaints, whereas the other legislation is about culture change plus the changing of section 28 of the Education Act to deal better with complaints. I am also concerned about the broad remit the Deputy is attributing to a potential ombudsman for education.

As legislators, the members need to be very clear about their role. Legislators have roles, as do civil servants. Industrial relations mechanisms have a role in dealing with teachers who are being treated badly and so on. We have established structures to deal with issues that arise in the course of employment, public management and education. We believe that the Office of the Ombudsman for Children should have an extended remit and should be better supported to deal with these problems.

I compliment Senator Ruane. The last time I met her we were at a lecture in the Royal Irish Academy where she spoke very passionately about the invisibility of disadvantage and the way the disadvantaged are not listened to. I would make the point that children are people. Their needs should not be dealt with on a segregated basis. They should not be told, "This is your education bit but the fact that the HSE has not delivered on your special needs supports is dealt with by another office." The nature of the office that is proposed in the Bill, which is all we have to go on, would end up being very short-sighted because its remit would not cover the entire needs of the child as he or she grows and progresses. For those reasons, we would be concerned about whether the Deputy's Bill will achieve what he would like it to achieve, and whether there are other mechanisms in place which would do so.

Mr. John MacGabhann:

I hope I will not repeat too much of what my colleagues have said. We want schools to work and to work more effectively. That means we want them to work for the students. The purpose is to serve the interests of the students.

The fact is schools are struggling at the moment. Resources have been pared back; nobody denies that. In particular, schools are struggling to maintain pastoral structures that were just about at the point of being embedded when economic disaster struck. In respect of what Senator Ruane said, I was a teacher for 24 years in a Tallaght school and I saw things improve because resources improved. Precisely the point the Senator made about confidence began to become evident in the community. People - parents and students - began to become empowered. They also had local structures that they understood and local access that they could use. My problem with Deputy Daly's Bill is that it will create another remote, statutory satellite. If there is one thing we have plenty of in the sky above education, it is satellites. We have any number of them.

Deputy Daly has described a remit that is very broad. Among the things included in it is, essentially, the remit of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. The Deputy included what is already very explicitly within the remit of other statutory bodies. In that context, something as broad and vast as the junior cycle would absorb resources in a manner that would not allow the sort of access that Senator Ruane has sought. What we want to do is make schools work. That involves, among other things, making student councils work and making them meaningful. We do not have an objection to student councils or any fear of culture change. We are attempting day by day to engineer that change but we are fighting against a resource tide that has been ebbing. That is the fundamental problem we have faced.

We are open to improving the situation. I very specifically take the point the Senator has made about those in more marginalised communities finding it an awful lot more difficult to access the pretty complex and arcane structures we put in place. That is precisely why it is in the school context that problems should be addressed.

On the charter Bill, it would be ruinous if each school was required to reinvent the wheel, as my colleague has said, on foot of guidelines issued by the Minister. There must be some standardisation here. Only then will we get consistency and fairness and the reassurance for parents that there is consistency and fairness.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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Thank you, Mr. MacGabhann. On behalf of the committee and the Chairman, who was unfortunately detained elsewhere for the past hour, I thank the witnesses for coming before us today. It was a very informative and productive session and their views were extremely clearly put. I am very grateful to all of them. We all learned a lot from today's insights and observations.

It is good at times to be challenged with views we did not have before we came into the committee room. We experienced that today, for which I thank the delegations. I wish the teacher unions all the best in their conference season. As their officers reach the end of their terms of office, I thank them for their work on behalf of their members. All of the teacher unions do tremendous work.

Sitting suspended at 5.30 p.m. and resumed at 5.50 p.m.

Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin resumed the Chair.