Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 30 May 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
Education (Amendment) Bill 2015 and Education (Parent and Student Charter) Bill 2016: Discussion (Resumed)
We are now in public session. I remind members and witnesses to please turn off their mobile phones because they interfere with the sound system and make it difficult for the parliamentary reporters to report the meeting. They can also adversely affect the web streaming.
I welcome the witnesses to the meeting. We have had a number of them before us previously on other topics of interest to all of us. This is the third meeting that we have had on the Education (Amendment) Bill 2015 and the general scheme of an Education (Parent and Student Charter) Bill 2016. The purpose of our meeting today is to continue the scrutiny of these two pieces of legislation. On behalf of the committee, I welcome the following witnesses to today’s meeting: Mr. Caoimhín Ó hEaghra from An Foras Pátrúnachta, who will be pleased to know that we have full translation services today; Ms Antoinette Nic Gearailt and Ms Eileen Salmon from the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools; Ms Breda Corr from the National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education; Mr. John Curtis and Fr. Paul Connell from the Joint Managerial Body/Association of Management of Catholic Secondary Schools; Mr. Seamus Mulconry and Ms Sinéad Brett from the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association; Mr. Michael Moriarty and Ms Joan Russell from Education and Training Boards Ireland; Mr. Shaheen Ahmed and Ms Asiya Al-Tawash from the Muslim Primary Education Board; Mr. Paul Rowe from Educate Together; and Dr. Ken Fennelly from the General Synod Board of Education of the Church of Ireland.
I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that 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 committee. However, if they are directed by the Chair to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a 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 they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I wish to advise the witnesses that their opening statements and submissions to the committee will be published on the committee's website after this meeting. I remind members of the same practice.
I thank all of the witnesses for the written submissions they have made, which have been circulated to all of the members. I would like to remind them that we only really want a short opening statement of between three and five minutes. We will take a statement from each organisation and then we will give the opportunity to the members to put any questions they have. I call first on Mr. Caoimhín Ó hEaghra.
Mr. Caoimhín Ó hEaghra:
Táim buíoch as an gcuireadh teacht chun labhairt anseo inniu. Ba mhaith liom ar dtús mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an gCathaoirleach agus le na hoifigigh ar fad a rinne iarracht an t-aistriúchán comhuaineach a chur ar fáil inniu. Táimid sa bhForas Pátrúnachta an-bhuíoch as sin.
Ar son an Fhorais Phátrúnachta, ba mhaith liom ár mbuíochas a chur in iúl as an gcuireadh teacht anseo chun cur i láthair a dhéanamh mar gheall ar an mBille Oideachais (Leasú) 2015 agus an scéim ghinearálta den Bhille Oideachais (Cairt Tuismitheoirí agus Mac Léinn) 2016. Cuireann An Foras Pátrúnachta fáilte roimh an phlé seo atá dírithe ar chabhair a thabhairt dár scoileanna agus dá bpobail. Aithnímid an aidhm atá leis an mBille agus an méid a bhfuil sé ag iarraidh a bhaint amach. Tá An Foras Pátrúnachta den tuairim áfach, ag an am seo, go bhfuil cur chuige níos éifeachtúla ann ná eagraíocht eile a bhunú a mbeadh freagracht ag scoileanna dó.
Braitear go bhfuil an Bille dírithe ar achainí a dhéanamh tar éis do mhúinteoir, príomhoide nó bord bainistíochta cinneadh a dhéanamh. Feictear dúinn go bhfuil córais agus struchtúir ann cheana a d’fhéadfaí a úsáid nó a fhorbairt sula rachadh muid síos an bóthar oifig d’ombudsman eile a bhunú. Faoi láthair tá Ombudsman do Leanaí, "Feidhmiúlacht chun Múineadh" faoi stiúir na Comhairle Múinteoireachta, an chigireacht agus eile ag scoileanna le bheith freagrach dóibh. Braithimid gur féidir leo seo mianta an Bhille a bhaint amach gan oifig eile a chruthú do scoileanna le bheith freagrach dó.
Tá caidreamh fíor-mhaith ag scoileanna na tíre seo lena bpobail. É sin ráite, níl sé ach nádúrtha go dtarlódh mí-shástacht, easaontas nó eile idir baill de phobail na scoileanna ó am go chéile. Tríd is tríd, réitítear na ceisteanna seo go sásúil agus bíonn an scoil ábalta feidhmiú go háitiúil. Ó am go ham, éiríonn ceisteanna nach féidir le scoileanna a réiteach agus teastaíonn treoirlínte agus beartais uathu chun iad a réiteach. Faoi láthair tá scoileanna ag úsáid an cleachtas a aontaíodh in 1993, nósanna imeachta mar gheall ar ghearáin ó thuismitheoirí in aghaidh múinteoirí nó baill ó fhoireann na scoile.
Tá gá athbhreithniú a dhéanamh ar na nósanna seo, cleachtas uasdátaithe a aontú idir na páirtithe leasmhara ar fad agus ansin iad a chur ar bhonn reachtúil. Chinnteodh sé seo go mbeadh cur chuige aontaithe atá trédhearcach, rannpháirteach agus aontaithe ag na páirtithe ar fad ar fáil do thuismitheoirí.
Fáiltíonn An Foras Pátrúnachta roimh chairt tuismitheoirí agus mac léinn. Ceapaimid go gcabhródh a leithéid le pobal uile na scoile. Díríonn an scéim ar an gcaoi a chaitheann scoileanna le tuismitheoirí agus le daltaí. Cé go n-aontaíonn muid leis seo, ba mhaith linn arís a mheabhrú go bhfuil cearta, dualgais agus freagrachtaí ag baill uile de phobal na scoile, foireann agus bord bainistíochta ina measc. Feidhmíonn scoileanna ar bhonn comhpháirtíochta. Titeann freagrachtaí agus dualgais chomh maith le cearta ar chomhpháirtithe. Is ceart go bhfuil aitheantas á thabhairt do thuismitheoirí agus do mhic léinn ach is gá freisin aitheantas a thabhairt do chearta, do fhreagrachtaí agus do dhualgais na scoileanna. Leis an méid tionscadal, scéime agus togra atá á bhfeidhmiú ag scoileanna, is gá a thabhairt san áireamh cibé cruth a bheidh ar an gcairt go bhfeidhmeoidh sé ar leas na mball uile i bpobal na scoile agus ní chun ualach breise a chur ar an mbainistíocht.
Tá scoileanna na tíre ag feidhmiú ar bheagán acmhainní daonna agus airgid. Tá ciorruithe curtha i bhfeidhm le deich mbliana anuas a chiallaíonn gurb é ceann de na ceisteanna is mó a bhíonn á bplé ag scoileanna ná conas maireachtáil ó mhí go mí agus an t-oideachas is fearr a sholáthar dá bpáistí. Tharla na ciorruithe seo in am ar cuireadh ar bonn an líon athruithe ba mhó agus ba shuntasaí in earnáil an oideachais le blianta fada anuas. Déanadh é seo ar fad trí struchtúr atá á bhainistiú go deonach ar son an Stáit agus gan lár-bhainistíocht chun tacú leis an bpríomhoide. Caithfidh aon leasú a thugtar isteach na cúinsí seo a thabhairt san áireamh.
Is minic a bhreathnaítear ar scoileanna mar an áit chun fadhbanna an tsochaí a réiteach. Ciallaíonn sé seo go bhfuil scoileanna de shíor ag tabhairt faoi thionscnaimh nua, faoi chuir chuige múinteoireachta nó bainistíochta nua, ag cloí le treoirlínte nua i bhfoirm ciorcláin nó ag freastal ar éilimh nua. Ag an am céanna, bíonn scoileanna de shíor ag feidhmiú ar son a bpáistí agus ag iarraidh an t-oideachas is fearr gur féidir leo a chur ar fáil. Tá an t-éileamh ó thuismitheoirí méadaithe le blianta anuas. Is minic scoileanna faoi bhrú ag déileáil le fadhbanna sóisialta na sochaí. Bíonn plé rialta acu le Tusla, leis an nGarda Síochána agus leis an bhFeidhmeannas Sláinte. Is minic gurb iad an scoil atá fágtha ag streachailt leis
na fadhbanna seo. Is minic bord bainistíochta deonach le príomhoide faoi bhrú oibre gan tacaíocht lár-bhainistíochta ag suí síos i scoileanna na tíre gach oíche den tseachtain chun leas ár bpáistí a chur chun cinn.
Dá bhrí sin, molann An Foras Pátrúnachta go dtiocfadh na rannpháirtithe uile le chéile chun plé a dhéanamh ar an gcairt agus chun cinntiú go bhfeidhmíonn sé ar leas uile na scoile ar bhonn comhpháirtíochta. Bíodh cumarsáid, trédhearcacht agus comhpháirtíocht mar chur chuige. Bíodh córais agus nósanna aontaithe chun easaontas nó gearáin a sheachaint agus chun iad a réiteach nuair a tharlaíonn siad ina lár. Cuireadh muid béim ar acmhainní a mhéadú sa chóras chun an freastal is fearr a dhéanamh ar ár bpobal.
Ms Eileen Salmon:
We welcome the parent and student charter, but schools are already providing all that is envisaged in the charter. It is a positive move to develop guidelines to ensure that all schools are taking their responsibilities on board. Schools had a very positive experience of developing a code of behaviour following guidelines produced by the National Educational Welfare Board after a lot of consultation with all our partners several years ago.
We would hope that this is the format envisaged in developing guidelines around a parent and student charter. If, however, detailed procedures are being proposed for processing grievances and complaints, they need to be workable. The danger is that they could become very cumbersome. We strike a note of caution here. Schools already have procedures in place, as I mentioned in our previous submission, which are usually agreed, according to school type, with unions and parent bodies. We do not want schools taking on board a huge extra burden of time and costs for the development of a new, cumbersome policy.
We would like parental responsibilities to be mentioned in the charter. We suggested something along the lines of "Parents will co-operate with the Parent and Student Charter and recognise their responsibilities to be active and involved in their child’s education". Boards listening to student voices in very important for all stakeholders, but it is important to get the context right. Student councils can be very active in a school and the officers of the council can have important input into policies and procedures. There are, however, governance issues that need to be kept separate from student input around the areas of employment, discipline and finance.
It is a positive move to bring the role of the Ombudsman for Children to everyone's attention. We have had experience of the Ombudsman for Children intervening in board decisions in some of our schools and any investigations, findings and recommendations of the ombudsman are, to our knowledge, very seriously considered by our boards as it stands. That is why it is difficult to understand the need for another ombudsman, specifically an ombudsman for education. The purpose of the role as outlined would be to provide an appeal mechanism for the decisions of boards and teachers and for grievances against schools, but there are already existing mechanisms to fulfil these functions. We outlined these in our advance submission and they include the Department inspectorate for section 29 appeals relating to refusal to enrol or exclusion of students. Special education needs issues can be appealed to the NCSE, while the Teaching Council handles appeals regarding fitness to teach and parental complaints, if they get to that stage. Tusla and An Garda Síochána deal with child protection, and, as I have already said, the existing Ombudsman for Children has a very wide remit in respect of children, parents and others in an education setting.
The proposed sections 65(1)(a) to 65(1)(h) set out a range of functions for the ombudsman including development of education policy, encouraging the development of school policies promoting rights and welfare of children, promoting awareness, exchanging information with its international counterparts, monitoring of legislation and the hearing and determination of appeals. All policies are developed in the context of existing legislation. There are consultative processes at all stages of development between school management bodies, the Department and relevant agencies at the initial stage of proposed new policies. School management bodies and boards of management disseminate information and advice. School boards, school management, parents and students collaboratively draw up, agree and ratify policies and all policies are publicly available.
The proposed section 65(2) speaks of establishing consultation structures with boards and school management organisations and of consultation with the student voice. There is constant ongoing consultation between school management organisations, the Department and a wide range of agencies involved in the welfare and education of children. An active student voice is a feature of almost all schools, and it should be in all schools, not alone on policy development, but on a wide range of issues relating to the education of students in any school, as it is with the parent voice.
The proposed sections 66(1) to 66(7) outline appeal processes but, as already stated, there are a wide range of existing appeal processes in operation. The fear is that having an ombudsman for education would mean that a school could be involved in multiple appeals on the same issue over a long period of time. The capacity to manage this does not exist in schools, either in terms of human or financial resources, especially as legal advice and representation is becoming more and more common. It would appear that the proposed ombudsman for education may be a duplication of the roles and functions of existing structures. It would also have a cost implication not only in terms of establishing the office, but also for schools. Extra resources and supports would be required as schools do not have the capacity to further expand the role of voluntary boards of management. A more appropriate way of dealing with any gaps in the system would be to set up a working group, a forum of all the relevant parties, to examine what already exists and to see where the perceived gaps may be. It could also establish if the expansion of existing services would suffice to bridge these gaps, rather than setting up a complete new entity, which would be costly and possibly unnecessary.
Ms Breda Corr:
We would like to thank the members of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills for affording us the opportunity to give the views of our members, which are schools involved in the education of pupils with special educational needs.The National Association of Boards of Management in Special Education, NABMSE, is the management voice of special education in Ireland. We are a recognised school management organisation providing country-wide representation for boards of management of special schools and mainstream primary and post-primary schools providing education for pupils with special educational needs.
In making this submission, it is important that we acknowledge the voluntary nature of the service and contribution that members of boards of management undertake at no cost to the State. It is important to put that out there. Boards need to be resourced and supported to undertake this work. As I have said, the function of a board under section 15(1) of the Education Act 1998 is "to manage the school on behalf of the patron and for the benefit of the students and their parents and to provide or cause to be provided an appropriate education for each student at the school for which that board has responsibility".
As has been stated previously at this committee, most boards of management are doing a very good job. It is important that the voice of school boards is respected and heard in any debate. The best interests of the pupils, their welfare and meeting their needs should be at the core of the work of the school and the board of management. We find with our membership it is generally. We encourage all boards to have robust and effective policies and procedures in place and we assist them in that regard.
While we welcome the spirit of the parent and student charter, which will foster and promote a culture of openness and transparency in the interaction of schools with students and parents, we feel more work is needed on the detail of the Bill and we have several observations and concerns. First, I welcome the definition of student which includes all persons enrolled in a school and thus students over 18 years. We find that quite difficult in special schools, because students often fall between two stools with regard to, for example, child protection. That is quite difficult.
Regarding head 3, on principles, I have outlined my concerns in the submission and I will not go into every single section. My concerns, however, are as follows. What is the definition of a quality school experience? That is quite subjective. Regarding information on school performance, I would be concerned that it might end up focusing only on exam performance and might not provide for schools that make provision for inclusion of pupils with special educational needs or those from social or economic disadvantage. I am unsure what is meant by "Operating quality assurance". That like a business term. One of the sections mentions mediation and remediation. Who will pay for this service and will extra resources be provided to schools if they are to pay, because that is quite expensive?
Section 12 of head 4 of the Bill states that:
In the preparation of guidelines or directions under this section the Minister will also have regard to:(i) how boards may respect student voice having regard to the age and experience of the students
Consideration needs to be given to how all students’ voices can be respected, including those with no voice at all and cannot speak.
Head 6 talks about the Ombudsman for Children. The areas for which the Ombudsman for Children can make suggestions, provide guidance or make recommendations are not clear from this head. A very pertinent question at the moment would be, for example, whether complaints regarding the deployment of teaching resources be included in this remit. That would be a very onerous task.
If resources are required by schools to implement the recommendations of the ombudsman or comply with the directions of the Minister, will these be provided by the Department of Education and Skills?
Moving on to the Education (Amendment) Bill, we are concerned that the establishment of an ombudsman for education would result in an unnecessary layer to oversee the work of voluntary boards of management. There appears to be no clarification in the proposed Bill of the kinds of board decisions that could be appealed to the ombudsman. Having each board decision subject to appeal would leave boards unable to manage the schools, and the question arises as to who would be ultimately responsible for the management of the school.
I will offer some of my suggestions for a way forward, some of which, I think, have been suggested by others. A forum of all partners could be established to examine the parent and student charter in greater detail, the current grievance procedures and other related issues. The current parental complaints procedure at primary level has been in existence since 1993 and we suggest it should be updated without delay. The procedure was agreed between the INTO and the CPSMA and did not include any other education partners. A wider consultation on these procedures is provided for in section 28 of the Education Act. Remedial action for grievances is also provided for in the Act. The informal stage of these procedures could be strengthened and clarified to enable issues to be resolved at a very early stage and at a local level, thus obviating the need for an ombudsman.
NABMSE looks forward to working with all partners on these proposals for the improvement of the school experience for all students.
Mr. John Curtis:
The JMB has long argued for greater coherence in national education policy-making. We therefore welcome the bringing together of a clearly articulated set of principles underpinning the relationship between parents and students on the one hand and schools on the other. The principles, as framed in the draft Bill, represent an ethical framework for parents founded on democratic civic values and the setting out of their appropriate engagement in their children's schools. Furthermore, in essence, they place the student at the centre of school life and are predicated on a positive and forward-looking vision of school.
In being party to a process whereby all aspects of what the charter might entail are being considered, some issues will of course need to be borne in mind: the need to accommodate the fact that many of these provisions are already underpinned by legislation and regulation that are well established in schools in our sector; the possible erosion of autonomy and the potential for micro-management of voluntary sector institutions; a potential weakening of the principle of subsidiarity by which decisions are best made at the lowest appropriate level, that is, by the school community itself; the need to avoid the emergence of an adversarial culture in the partnership between schools and the families they serve; the need to recognise that while parents have a fully appreciated focus on their own children's situations, the education and safety of the whole cohort of students must remain the overarching focus of school authorities; the sense that there should be an identification of responsibilities associated with the charter's set of rights; and the potential for the emergence of additional layers of bureaucracy and financial cost in already overwhelmed schools. These issues readily emerge. We imagine their consideration is already under way and we look forward to engaging in the ongoing conversation.
We contend that existing procedures in schools have been fundamentally inclusive in engaging with parents and students through established mechanisms of representation that have evolved in an incremental manner and that much of what a charter might envisage as best practice may already be in place in our schools. This is especially true of the integral and still developing role of student councils and parent associations in our sector and the manifest impact they have had, especially in recent years. The incremental change already occurring in the nature and level of engagement of our students and their parents in our schools should serve as a foundation for what might be envisaged for the charter.
We are conscious that Part 5, titled Fitness to Teach, of the Teaching Council Acts 2001 to 2005 commenced on 25 July 2016. This allows members of the public, other teachers, employers or the Teaching Council to make a complaint against a registered teacher. The implications of what this will entail for schools and how it might impact on current practice and procedures perhaps still needs to unfold. How this process will ultimately develop may have a relevance for what is envisaged for the charter, and it will be important that in this area there is a mapped strategy regarding engagement and function in place.
Likewise, the role of the ombudsman - for children or for education - will need to be incorporated in an appropriate way in what will emerge, and the nature of the interface between the ombudsman and the school will have to be carefully considered and defined. It is very important that the energy of school communities radiate towards the student and the teaching and learning process, and that accountability and appeal processes do not become overly invasive and suffocating. Furthermore, it is crucial that an appropriate balance is maintained between the rights of the individual student and parent and the school's charge to the well-being and health and safety of the entire student cohort.
Part of our remit at this juncture is of necessity to identify issues that might warrant particular attention, but we very much embrace the promise of what this process can lead to in improving efficacy, accountability and the education experience in our schools. The JMB has always valued the collaborative and fruitful nature of our work with officials in the Department of Education and Skills. We will work with the Oireachtas and the Minister to ensure that each of the 14 principles framed in the draft Bill will continue to be part of the lived experience of our schools and we look forward to engaging with the Minister in the development of the forthcoming guidelines.
The draft Bill to establish an ombudsman for education has significant alignment with proposals framed in the parent and student charter Bill. The charter Bill's extension of powers to the Ombudsman for Children are focused on the processes of appeal, investigation and direction, and appear, to the JMB, to be sufficient for the reinforcement of parents' rights in responding to decisions made by a school. Childhood, to age 18, and formal education are concurrent in our society. It would appear to represent an artificial segregation of experience and process if there were to be two separate ombudsman frameworks increasing the potential for incoherence of process and authority in the childhood space.
We note that in his Education in Focus report of November 2016, the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, stated that 45% of the 1,649 complaints his office received related to education. Given this reality and that in many of these cases there can be attendant issues surrounding disability, health, children in care, housing or other issues, as outlined by Dr. Muldoon in his submission to this committee on 7 March last, it would seem appropriate that issues relating to education would continue to be addressed by means of the broad remit that currently pertains in the Ombudsman for Children's office. Regarding some specific issues, we would seek to explore what "appropriate remedial action" might be taken by the Ombudsman in the context of an appeal to his office. As we indicated earlier, the JMB seeks greater coherence in educational policy-making at a national level, and any progress towards the "coordination of policy relating to education" as mentioned here is most welcome. That due consideration is given by all parties to all that pertains to legislation in the area of education is very important to us as an organisation. Again, we welcome the opportunity afforded to us by this engagement and we look forward to further discussion on these issues as matters unfold.
Mr. Seamus Mulconry:
Many of the points I wished to make have already been made more eloquently than I could by my colleagues so I will refrain from doing so again. However, I wish to make three points.
The CPSMA has more than 20,000 members and we support 2,800 schools. If one takes our boards of management and all the other voluntary boards of management represented here, it is the single greatest example of social capital in the country next to the GAA. It is quite an extraordinary contribution by ordinary citizens which deserves to be recognised and applauded.
As well as being the general secretary of the CPSMA, I sit on the Teaching Council's investigations committee and evidence of character panel. As I am in the CPSMA, we receive approximately 7,500 queries from schools on a broad range of issues, from parental complaints to bullying etc. I therefore have a pretty good handle on the problems in the primary school education sector. However, what always strikes me is not the problems, which are minor in comparison with the contribution, but rather that the primary school system in Ireland is working very well and is delivering a high-quality education. It has very high levels of parental and student satisfaction.
I recently had the pleasure of attending a school prize-giving ceremony presided over by Mr. Marty Morrissey, who gave one the best definitions of a school I have ever come across. He said a school was a unique community where dedicated professionals helped pupils to discover and develop their talents. It is a great definition but it also has partnership at its core. We cannot outsource the teaching of our children or their education to schools; it is a partnership between parents, schools and students. We certainly welcome the students' charter as a codifying of existing best practice. Most schools are already doing this and it is good to have it set out on paper in clear black and white. However, we are concerned about some of the language. For example, it talks about the school being a service provider. Schools are not the educational equivalent of Tesco; they are partnerships. They only work when parents and teachers work together.
We are also concerned that schools in the primary school sector are suffering from initiative overload and the amount of administration in schools is increasing all the time. Much of this is necessary and valuable but it means that teachers and principals can sometimes be a little defensive, as they see more work arriving on top of them. I know it is not the intent of the student charter but we are concerned that the subtext of the student charter is that some schools are doing something wrong. We therefore urge that the Department in redrafting this would be cognisant of the language and celebrate schools rather than suggesting they are doing something wrong, which I do not believe is the intent.
With rights there are responsibilities. There is a very tiny minority of parents who are not always as grateful or respectful of the efforts of schools as they might be. It would be very useful to have the responsibilities of parents and students set out in the charter so all stakeholders have a clear idea of their rights and responsibilities.
Mr. Michael Moriarty:
I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for inviting us here today. I will paraphrase our submission so as not to repeat much of what has been said. Education and Training Boards Ireland, ETBI, certainly welcomes the charter itself. Sections of the Education Act provide rights to parents and children but it is good to have this clarity so they can be brought together in a precise way. We certainly welcome that for parents and schools as well. We have some concerns, as I will come to in a moment.
ETBI has a long tradition of partnership with parents and we have parents on our boards of management and education and training boards. As statutory bodies we are very compliance-aware anyway. It is important to have legal underpinning of the existing good practice spread throughout the education legislation in order to have it copperfastened and crystalised. That is what this charter does. In that light, we welcome this process. In 2009 at our own annual conference, we proposed a charter of rights just like this for schools, parents and children; it would have dealt with rights for the entire school community. It is not new to us and it is something we have looked forward to and mentioned before as a priority of the education and training boards. During the discussions we will seek to examine how the charter will interact with other legislation, such as the Teaching Council Act, the Education Act and the Children First Act etc. Like my colleagues who spoke before me, we welcome the proposal to have detailed guidelines for schools and it is important to have a standard approach across schools rather than variations. It is extremely important that the guidelines are strong and detailed enough to provide for that so parents expect the same from all schools, irrespective of where they are.
The effective implementation of this new legislation is dependent on two elements, which are strong leadership at a school level and appropriate resources for schools. We need greater clarity on that and we will certainly be seeking it as the Bill progresses. We want our schools to be charter-ready but have the appropriate capacity to do that. Rather than reacting or firefighting, it is very important that we can work proactively with it and our schools can do that. Effective change must be planned but it must also be resourced. The legislators and school management will fail if there are not sufficient resources at school level. As my colleagues have said before, we cannot continue to overburden school management that is already creaking in trying to address oversight, statutory and other provisions with which schools are now required to comply.
Those are our concerns about the capacity of schools. One of the high-level principles set out in this Bill refers to securing optimal outcomes for each student with regard to student learning and holistic development. That seems to be very absolute and unequivocal. Schools could be challenged very quickly by any parent who feels a child has not been given a level of education, training, or holistic development that is copperfastened as a statutory right for parents in this legislation. There is a very high bar for the principles, another one being the aforementioned quality assurance matter. They will be difficult for schools, and although there are rights for parents and teachers, schools also have rights to a reasonable expectation of meeting the provisions of this. The words "strive" or "endeavour" would be important but they are not mentioned. We need to set out procedures to avoid unreasonable challenges to schools by parents or vexatious complaints. The Education (Amendment) Bill has this when it comes to the Ombudsman for Children.
Since the Education Act 1998, there has been a very significant change in the education sector. A student-centred approach is now the norm and schools are committed to inclusive education. A curriculum is designed to meet the needs of students and the student voice is not in any way a tokenistic notion. Students are consulted on many issues of policy. The Department inspectorate see to that and school self-evaluation looks to this, as does junior cycle reform. It is important that there be a standard student-parent charter for all schools. It is welcome and has the potential to inform the work of schools in terms of the needs of students, parents and families. ETBI welcomes the clarity of the charter, notwithstanding the very serious concerns I have expressed about resourcing schools to meet high-level expectation and the high-bar principles that are here.
I will move to the Education (Amendment) Bill, which seeks to establish an ombudsman for education, which would have powers to investigate decisions of teachers or grievances against schools and principals. ETBI is open to this proposal and we have no objection to the establishment of such a statutory position. Having said that, we have not completed our internal process as it was overtaken by today's hearing. So far, the education and training boards have expressed a positive disposition towards the Bill. The majority of boards function very well and discharge their duties appropriately
However, we have to be mindful of the very small minority of boards with which parents encounter difficulty in finding redress to problems relating to the educational welfare of their child. The office of the ombudsman for education could provide an accessible point for parents for such resolutions. There would be a dedicated agency to which parents could turn. Children’s issues are spread across a number of Departments throughout the Education Act. They are hard to find. An ombudsman for education would provide ready access for parents.
One of the noteworthy proposed functions of the ombudsman for education would be particularly welcomed. It is proposed that the ombudsman would monitor and review generally the operation of legislation concerning matters relating to the education of children. The proposed function whereby the ombudsman for education could establish structures to consult regularly with boards and recognised school management agencies would also be a welcome development.
I note in section 66(7)(i) that this ombudsman has the right to refuse an appeal if it was considered vexatious. That is very important for the protection of schools. We like the focus on education, and the proposal for an ombudsman for education as a protector and promoter of the rights and welfare of children. However, we must be conscious of the rights and welfare of staff, students and boards also. There needs to be a balance in both items of proposed legislation, but the ombudsman for children brings considerable focus on the education sector itself.
Ms Asiya Al-Tawash:
Many of the points have been covered, so my submission will be fairly brief. The Muslim Primary Education Board, MPEB, is a voluntary body which represents the two Muslim primary schools in Dublin and would also hope to give voice to the large number of Muslim children in the wider educational arena.
According to the 2016 census, there are over 63,000 Muslims living in Ireland. That growth of 30% is an indicator that the numbers of Muslim children entering the Irish school system is rapidly increasing.
The MPEB welcomes the draft Bill to introduce a student and parent charter into the primary and post-primary sector. We acknowledge that it is important for all stakeholders within the education system to work together to provide the best possible educational outcome for all students.
Open school policies made clear and available to both parents and pupils clarify issues and avoid misconceptions and misunderstanding. We would particularly welcome clear and open policies with regard to the admissions process in schools, which is often confusing, especially for those who have not had previous experience of the Irish educational system. As the numbers of parents who are new to the Irish system grows, it is imperative that policies and procedures for parents are clear.
Consultation with parents on school costs and other equipment will enable parents to become part of the decision making process and regular feedback from parents and students act as a useful indicator.
The provision of a financial statement will allow parents to see that the use of voluntary contributions has become vital to schools in the provision of basic services and equipment. There are often misconceptions with regard to the use of these payments and clarification will inform parents as to the under-resourcing of schools and the dependence on voluntary contributions.
An accessible complaints system with clear steps and procedures should be available and complaints mediated and resolved within these processes, except for the most serious complaints. Voluntary school boards of management working to mediate complaints must be provided with training and resources to facilitate this role.
It should be noted that most schools, including our own, already undertake many of the practices outlined in the charter. Parents are consulted and listened to through many avenues, including parent associations and online surveys. School policies are available to parents of a school.
Class representatives and the Student Council give voice to our pupils and help them to engage and contribute in the school community. Clear complaint policies are laid out with procedures and steps toward mediation.
While much of the draft legislation will enhance and clarify relationships between schools, parents and students, some points for discussion remain. The charter is centred upon the needs and requirements of parents and students and appears to give no indication of any requirements or needs of schools, or provide any reciprocal undertaking by parents or students. A number of terms within the draft Bill, which have been mentioned already, may require clarification. For example, section 28(1) states: "To ensure that a school provides a quality experience for its students,". That is a subjective term and gives no indication as to how or by whom these standards will be set.
The Education (Amendment) Bill 2015 proposes the appointment of an ombudsman for education to provide an appeal mechanism for the decisions of boards of education concerning decisions of teachers and grievances against schools. Although the MPEB welcomes the initiative to address grievances and provide a legislated appeal process, there are already a number of options open in such cases. Currently, grievances may be addressed through a number of avenues including boards of management, the Ombudsman for Children and the Teaching Council. It would be hoped that the introduction of the parent and student charter should further reduce the number of grievances through its clarification of school policies and consultation processes. It would appear, therefore, that the appointment of a dedicated ombudsman for education may not be needed and may not be the most efficient use of resources.
The establishment of a forum of educational partners to put together a clear, robust mechanism for dealing with grievances, after all others have been exhausted, may present a better option at this point in time. The establishment of the parent and student charter, and the initiatives to address grievances, can bring significant and positive changes to our school communities, but success will depend on the participation of all educational partners.
Mr. Paul Rowe:
I thank the Chairman for the invitation to address the committee on these two Bills. I will try to constrain my remarks to points not already made.
Educate Together welcomes publication of the Education (Parent and Student Charter) Bill. Educate Together has been operating according to its own charter since 1992 and we believe this is a very good way of establishing fundamental principles on which school operations can be managed.
It is very heartening to see that the parent and student charter will involve parents and students more decisively in the work of schools. We believe that the use of a well drafted charter can result in a service to support democracy in action in schools, more confident young people capable of and committed to creating positive change in their school and, by extension, in society. In our experience, this type of approach is critical to maximising participation of children in schools and families, especially in areas in which there is not a culture of such participation. This objective has been at the heart of Educate Together's ethos since its inception in the 1970s, which recognises the centrality of learners in school not just as subjects of transmission of information but as active agents in their own education.
We are particularly interested in the potential of the charter to reinforce the good practice of listening to [and hearing] the voices of children and young people in schools, which aligns with our ethos.
We would encourage the community to reinforce, through this charter, the important role of parents, students and families engaged in the educational process. There is a huge opportunity for this particular piece of legislation to do so. At second level, Educate Together students are welcomed on boards of management of the new Educate Together second-level schools, to participate in shaping the policy of their schools where appropriate. We would like, in this legislation, a formal commitment to appropriate student participation on boards of management included in this Bill.
The Bill places additional requirements on boards of management, and this is a matter of very serious concern. As other speakers have said, boards of management are a huge example of social capital in our society. They are overburdened currently, and it is really important that the Oireachtas supports this level of voluntary participation. We analysed, some years ago, the total contribution of the voluntary membership of boards of management of schools and we analysed that the State contributes €1.47 per pupil per year to management of the primary education system. That is an extraordinary deliverable where social impact is concerned. The requirement to provide mediation, for example, is something which we thoroughly support, but that has to be associated with resources in order to be implemented.
Boards are made up of individuals who undertake their role on an entirely voluntary basis. Some of the issues they face in areas of complaints, grievance and complicated human resources issues are complex and deeply emotional for all involved. We would like to see the relationship between boards of management, parents and students being based on restorative practice, with proper resourcing and supports in place to support boards of management in their work, which we have to acknowledge can take a serious personal toll on board members. The language of the Bill is somewhat vague, as other representatives have highlighted, particularly in some paragraphs. In paragraph 2, sub-sections (vii) to (xi), for instance, there is mention of "operating quality assurance", without any specifics as to what is being quality assured or what is meant by quality. We welcome the expansion of the role of the Ombudsman for Children.
We welcome the intent of the Education (Amendment) Bill 2015, to provide an appeal mechanism for decisions of boards of management, but we are not in favour of the proposal to appoint an ombudsman for education. We feel that the aim of the Bill would be better served by putting in place a robust complaints procedure, with an appeal process that would be agreed by all stakeholders, including parent bodies, management bodies, trade unions of all staff in schools, student councils and the Department. This would be based on a partnership model, and would include a properly resourced appeal process. We would like to point out that the current complaints process was negotiated some time ago. That negotiation, though no fault of any party, did not include all parties currently in management in education.
In closing, I would like to reiterate and emphasise the voluntary nature of boards of management. I would like to draw a distinction between boards of management of national schools, of voluntary secondary schools and community schools - which are corporate entities in their own right, with full authority and responsibility for the legal running of schools and for the employment of staff - and boards of management in community colleges, which are subcommittees of an education and training board, ETB, and do not have the same legally heavy set of responsibilities. Our boards are made up of volunteers, who give up a considerable amount of their time to run schools at primary and post-primary level, at no cost to the Exchequer, other than the provision of training deemed essential for them to carry out their governance role. We feel that any Bill should recognise the voluntary nature of the role and the benefit of it, and should emphasise support provision for members of boards to carry out their work using good practice. We would conclude by asking the Oireachtas to take steps to positively affirm and support that huge voluntary resource in our society.
Dr. Ken Fennelly:
My remarks echo much of what people have already said today, so I will try to be quick and move on through them as quickly as I can. We are grateful for the opportunity to input into deliberations here.
As I have remarked before committees in the past, a significant part of my role involves liaising with both principals and boards of management chairpersons, especially in to instances where they are dealing with a parental complaint. While the vast majority of these complaints are resolved and good relationships are restored, the reality of life is that this is not always the case. To date, school communities - parents, teachers and school boards of management - have relied on an agreed parental complaints procedure. As members will know, there is a provision under section 28 of the Education Act 1998 for the Minister to prescribe procedures in this regard. That has not been done.
However, this proposed Bill, referred to as the Education (Parent and Student Charter) Bill, is addressing this issue through primary legislation. We agree that the Bill has some laudable proposals. It would be our view that schools are currently living out these principles and such a culture has long been adopted in schools. Indeed, some of the principles outlined are required by existing legislation. As members will know from their work as public representatives, people are sensitive to language and perception. The language contained in this Bill seems to be binary in approach, rather than adopting a collegiate-partnership approach, which was the vision of the Education Act 1998. I absolutely accept the view that the creation of a culture of positive relationships based on good communications and healthy and on-going interactions within the school community can make a key difference in fostering a culture that prevents grievances arising in the first instance. This is to benefit of all involved and is a model which we, as a church, are most comfortable with. We note that the Department of Education and Skills issued a circular in 1991 on the relationship between parents and schools. We suggest that it is timely to revisit and revise that circular as a practical and positive step towards re-articulating the understanding that we all share on this issue.
It is clear to all of us involved in school management that the current parental complaints procedures need to be reviewed. Recent developments relating to teachers' disciplinary procedures have made this a necessity. We have had a few instances where the taking forward of a parental complaint has caused a procedural difficulty when that process moves into the procedures for suspension and dismissal of teachers. Disciplinary procedures have their basis in section 24 of the 1998 Act, and I ask that the committee give serious consideration to allowing the same format for the parental complaints procedure, in other words, that there is a provision for such procedures in primary legislation, but that the procedures themselves are nationally agreed among the various education partners, which was suggested earlier today. The procedure itself needs to have the ability to adapt and be adaptable to further developments. We suggest to the committee that for practical purposes, this is the most appropriate model with the revised parental complaints procedure being agreed nationally, but having its grounding in primary legislation. Members will know that section 28 of the 1998 Act currently makes provision for this to be done.
Members will be aware that education matters are currently under the remit of both the Office of the Ombudsman and also the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. The Ombudsman has a remit for a number of third-level bodies, while the Ombudsman for Children has responsibility for complaints relating to school. On the scope of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, it can review the procedure of matters determined by school boards of management, but not the decision. This is as it should be. The board of management is the corporate body charged with the responsibility of managing the school. The board is not an entity of the State. Rather, it is a voluntary body appointed by the patron of the school, albeit subject to the rules and regulations of the Department of Education and Skills, the State and law. As members will know, the Teaching Council has commenced its fitness to teach procedures, and we would hope and expect that the number of parental complaints regarding teachers would significantly reduce as a consequence.
The other piece of legislation under consideration here today aims to address the relationship between the school and parents, and indeed is seeking to amend the remit of the Ombudsman for Children. There seem to be two things going on at the same time. We suggest to the committee that this is a case of “sufficient unto the day is the worry thereof”, and to give credence to the concept, the necessity of creating a new ombudsman for education is matter that needs to be revisited when the various proposals made by the various national bodies to the committee regarding the handling of parental complaints have been fully considered. Obviously that is a matter for the committee. If one looks at the area of the handling of school complaints beyond that at school boards of management, one can point at the Office of the Ombudsman for Children - which currently has remit in this area, as has been said - the Teaching Council which now offers another avenue for complaints against teachers, the inspectorate under section 29, and also the willingness of education partners that have come before the committee today to revise the parental complaints procedures. There are many avenues there now. Given the progress that has been made since this idea was first proposed two years ago, we are of the view that the case for the establishment of this new office of an ombudsman for education is weak and does not pass the test of necessity.
It is important for us to state that we view our schools as communities. They are not simply service providers to clients. The life of a school community is an enterprise in partnership. It should not be characterised as a conceptually one-dimensional interaction. Schools are communities within communities.
The concept and language of a “charter” is based in the corporate world and is only a step away from a “service level agreement”. We question whether this is a positive development in terms of public policy and the common good. As a society, we seemed to have moved away from the concept of the school acting in loco parentis. This needs to be reflected on. Our schools seek to develop and nurture the whole person in a collaborative way. Why is this Bill being called the parent and student charter? Why can it not be a more general charter for our schools?
The INTO made the point at its Easter conference that teachers are not recognised in the conceptualisation of this Bill at all and we agree with the INTO on that. Teachers should be included. So too should everybody involved in the life of the school - students, parents, teachers, SNAs, administrative and care taking staff, local clergy and other volunteers. School life is a collaborative life with the child at its centre. We suggest to the committee that while we welcome the intention of the Bill, legislation from this Oireachtas that focuses on only two elements of those involved in school life does not send either an affirming or supportive signal to school communities in their entirety.
Again, I thank the committee for the opportunity to contribute to this discussion.
Thank you very much, Dr. Fennelly. We have had nine excellent submissions. While they all varied in terms of their content and main points, there was a certain amount of commonality among them. Such commonalities included a deep appreciation for the boards of management of schools and the need for extra supports and resources for those boards, as well as for schools in general. The partnership approach was very much welcomed. The point was well made that there are times when it seems as if the school system is seen as the answer to all of society's ills. The assumption is often made that general problems or challenges in society can be addressed through the school system. That obviously puts a lot of pressure and stress on teachers, students and boards of management and we must be mindful of that.
I will now invite members to comment or pose questions. Deputy Jim Daly is first.
I thank all the witnesses who contributed. It is obvious that they put time and effort into responding to both Bills that have been presented. This is our third round of pre-legislative scrutiny on these two Bills.
What consultations did each of the contributors undertake in their own sectors in preparing their responses to the legislation? It is no surprise to me that most of the partners here are against the establishment of an ombudsman for education. Indeed, most of the partners involved in education are against the idea. The Department of Education and Skills is leading the charge against the establishment of an ombudsman's office but that has only convinced me all the more that there is a need for such an office. The resistance, led by the Department in the first instance, to the establishment of an ombudsman for education suggests to me that there is a fear around that. In that context, I will make a couple of brief points on the fear factor surrounding the idea of an ombudsman for education.
An ombudsman for education is not just for complaints about teachers, as seems to be a common perception out there. An ombudsman for education is a support for teachers because teachers are often victims in the education system and can have complaints as much as anyone else. An ombudsman for education would be there for teachers, SNAs, principals and for the much mentioned board of management members. If I was sitting on a board of management and making a decision, I would be much happier doing so in the knowledge that there was an ombudsman in the sector and that people would have the right to appeal any decision made by the board. We have an ombudsman for the defence forces and for An Garda Síochána but many of us have gone through our lives without ever having dealt with those bodies. We also have an ombudsman for pensions. Nine out of ten people will interact with the education system. In fact, almost everyone in the country will interact with the education system at some level and in that context, the resistance to the establishment of an ombudsman for education is puzzling.
I wish to refer to the costs, which were mentioned today and during our last meeting. While I am deeply touched by so many people worrying about the costs of an ombudsman's office, I want to nail that point immediately. The establishment of an ombudsman's office that might cost €700,000 or €800,000 but in the context of a budget of €8 billion, that is a tiny percentage. It is a pittance in the greater scheme of things but it could improve the quality and experience of education for all of the partners in the system, not just the students and parents, but the teachers, SNAs, board members, principals and so on.
One contributor touched on the fact that an ombudsman's office could take on an advocacy role and that is what is behind the reluctance on the part of the Department. The Department is not just hesitant about this but has objected outright. I resent the fact that the Department has insisted on putting the two Bills side by side, as if they are competing with each other. It is clouding the judgment and the debate by insisting that the two Bills are given pre-legislative scrutiny together.
It was sought by the Minister, through the Department. The Minister requested that we do that and I resent it.
On the question of advocacy, an ombudsman - who is an expert in education - could challenge and take on the Department. Many of the contributors made reference to the role of the Ombudsman for Children, who is very protective of his own patch and who does not want an ombudsman for education to be established, for a variety of reasons. He sees it as a threat to his role.
I would make the point that it is not a threat and is there to encompass all. It has been widely acknowledged, including by the Minister, the Department and the Ombudsman for Children himself, that his remit is very narrow when it comes to dealing with education complaints. Anybody who takes the time to look at his report and to peruse the various complaints will see that the percentage of education related complaints is huge, at more than 50%, but the amount of such complaints that he investigates and which are within his remit is minuscule. That is the issue that brought this Bill about. In the context of the legislation I am putting forward now, about four years ago I produced legislation to widen the remit of the Ombudsman for Children to incorporate education matters but that legislation was not accepted. The office still has a limited remit and this has been acknowledged. It is acknowledged in the student charter, which aims to broaden his remit to enable him to adequately address education matters.
It is no surprise to me that Education and Training Boards Ireland, ETBI, is showing a much more open welcome to this. I am interested in the level of consultation that took place within the ETBI. The ETBI is head and tail above every other sector in the education sphere when it comes to accountability, transparency and levels of governance. It is possible to appeal the decisions of the various management bodies of the ETBI. If an individual takes issue with a decision of the board of management of a local school, he or she can appeal that to the ETBI governing body. I have sat on enough of those appeal boards to understand that process. The ETBI also has section 29 appeals already in operation. In that context, I am not surprised that the ETBI has demonstrated an openness to this because its members are much further down the road.
In terms of decisions of the boards of management, there is no appeal mechanism for anybody who has an issue with those decisions, whether that be a teacher, an SNA or a parent. The only way to appeal a decision of the board of management is to go to court but the vast majority of people do not have the wherewithal to do that. In this country, one can appeal a parking ticket but one cannot appeal a decision that is taken about one's child or one's career as a teacher by a board of management. There is nowhere to go. If one writes to the Department in that regard, one will be told that it has no role or function in that area. If one writes to the patrons, they will absolve themselves of any responsibility too. I have seen cases where parents were feeling deeply frustrated but if they were to write to the Minister, he would tell them that he has no role or function in the governance of the boards of management and that they are independent entities. The only avenue is the courts. In that context, an ombudsman would be very helpful.
I would be one of the first to acknowledge that boards of management are voluntary in nature and the contribution made by their members is superb. However, that is not a reason for us, as a society, to shy away. We have seen problems in recent times with boards of management when everybody was not 100% open and transparent. I accept that people are giving of their time voluntarily but I know lots of parents who would love to get on to boards of management but cannot do so because of the membership structures.
Most parents are happy to contribute to the well-being of their children and their educational welfare. There is a lot of generosity from parents who have many skill sets and are happy to sit on boards of management and offer their time and service. That is not a reason for us, as a society, to take a hands-off approach to how they function and are managed.
I thank all the witnesses for their presentations today. I agree with those who said that "service provider" is not a way to describe schools. It is a huge disservice to what happens in schools across the country. Is áthas liom go bhfuil áiseanna aistriúcháin againn inniu agus gur féidir le Mr. Ó hEagra a chur i láthair a dhéanamh i nGaeilge. Cinnte, aontaím leis nach bhfuil go leor acmhainní sna scoileanna agus go bhfuil a lán príomhoidí ag obair gan lár-bhainistíocht chun tacú leo. An gcreideann Mr. Ó hEagra gur chóir do dháltaí suí ar na boird bainstíochta sna scoileanna?
Ms Salmon of the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools, ACCS, recommended inserting a new paragraph which would say that "Parents will co-operate with the Parent and Student Charter and recognise their responsibilities to be active and involved in their child’s education." How does she envisage schools dealing with parents in scenarios where, unfortunately, parents are either unwilling or uninterested in getting involved? How can parents be made to co-operate without their lack of co-operation having an adverse effect on their child?
I note Ms Salmon is not in favour of having students on boards of management. Surely it is possible for student members to be recused from certain areas, such as issues of discipline and so on, while at the same time having a valuable contribution. I am aware that there are student councils and active student voices within our schools but unfortunately, due to the squeeze on middle management, many schools do not have a student council staff liaison officer. It is a very important role. That essential staff member, who holds the hand of the student council at the very beginning, is absent. Indeed, even in some of Ms Salmon's own schools the principal is acting as that co-ordinator. Therefore the student councils are suffering and their voice might not be heard with the strength it could be.
Does Ms Salmon believe it is time to review how boards of management are formed? I am aware that in many schools after local elections, for example, there is a scramble for whatever political party that got the majority to get onto the boards of management. Does that necessarily put the right people on the boards of management, when they do not have experience in the field of education or in services for children? They are chairing interview panels for teachers when they have absolutely no educational experience. The student teacher who has just qualified sometimes has more experience than the person who is chairing the panel, who is sometimes just there because he or she is from the right political party at the right time. That same question applies to all witnesses across the board. Where that is happening, do we need to review our boards of management to make sure they are working properly for our students and for our schools? As Deputy Jim Daly said, some parents feel some schools in certain places are closed shops and parents who want to get on boards, cannot.
In respect of the boards of management again, I see that Educate Together has second level students on the boards. Will Mr. Rowe expand on how this works and what he feels is most effective about it?
I have more of a comment than a question. It refers back to the students on the boards of management. I am chairperson of the board of management of an education and training board, ETB, school. We have students sitting on our board of management and their level of interest and interaction with the board of management is very good. They sit for the first half of the meeting and bring forward student issues. They have a huge role to play in terms of participation because there are certainly things which they bring up that we, as a board of management, would not be aware of had they not brought them to our attention. They are able to bring up issues that may have happened in the school or issues that they perceive as a problem. Their participation has certainly made our board of management very effective. I certainly believe they have a role to play on the board of management.
To go back to Deputy Jim Daly's comments, I have quite a bit of experience with boards of management under the Education and Training Board Ireland, ETBI, rules. I certainly think the ETBI is very forward thinking in respect of its policies and the different Acts that have been passed. Guidelines are set down which the schools adopt and run under the rules and regulations set down by their own policies. It is hugely important that there is an appeals process. That has worked very effectively. In the past there was a particular student who had issues with which the school might have had difficulties. The parents came to the board of management and objected to the rulings of the school or what it had been thinking about this particular student for something she had done. The board of management looked at it very carefully, as did the appeals board. Services were put in place to help that student. The right decision at the time was to overturn the decision of the school. There were certainly a lot of services put in place, including anger management for the student. The decision of the board of management and the small appeals committee of the board was the right decision for that student. That student went back into the mainstream school. She has left the school since but she did really well. Sometimes a board of management can find things to help the student and it does not always uphold the school's decision either.
I thank all of the stakeholders for coming in today. It was certainly very informative. The parent-student charter is positive overall but a number of members expressed concerns in terms of the administration overload on principals. That is a huge issue to which we need to face up. We need to look at reinstating middle management, because from what I hear from other teachers on the ground, that is the real issue. Education, as we know, should always be child-centred. We have to ensure that we are not moving away from a focus on the child and are reducing the impact of administration. We have to resolve this. The only way it can be done is through the reinstatement of middle management in our schools.
I too enjoyed the contributions of all speakers. It is unique in this building to get so much consensus in a room and it is very welcome. The first thing I note is that a few phrases kept repeating themselves, things like resources in respect of overload, on which Deputy Nolan just touched. That is a key issue and a point worth making. When one talks to principals, they all complain of that particular issue. It is something of which we need to be very conscious. Taking Deputy Jim Daly's points on board, there does not seem to be a great deal between all sides in this particular debate. I feel there is potential for some form of forum, which some people spoke about and which is a good idea, at which everybody could get around a table. We are not that far away from consensus on this particular issue. To my mind, listening to the professionals in their contributions, there seems to be a solution within the machinery which already exists. All we need is a bit of tweaking in order to bring everybody's opinions on board.
Boards of management were discussed. I believe it was Mr. Mulconry that made the point about Marty Morrissey and the GAA. That is a well-made point. We are very fortunate to have people who would volunteer to go on boards of management. I would be interested to hear what the witnesses have to say about this, but in my experience I was always of the opinion that people were not queueing up to get on boards of management. That has always been my experience but maybe others have found differently. I understood that it was an onerous task for anybody, particularly somebody who is not qualified or trained in that particular area. I would be interested to hear any feedback from the witnesses in that regard, but my experience has been a case of having to cast a net and try to attract people, rather than parents volunteering. I would be interested in that.
As I said, I do not think we are a million miles away from a solution. The mechanism and the machinery is there for us to do that, if all sides agree.
I thank the education partners for coming before the committee, repeatedly at this point. I think there is too much of a focus in the education sector at a Government level on legislation and not enough of a focus on resources. Deputy Nolan mentioned the issue of administrative posts. There is a whole range of resources that are required by schools. I would certainly like to see the focus on that. At times, the legislation has been brought forward at undrafted stage almost to give the impression that something is being done about education. I believe that is unfortunate. What really needs to be is to fund education more and give it more resources. That is where the focus should be. It should be on getting good teachers into good schools and giving them the equipment they need to teach.
In terms of the contributions today, I have certainly taken on board a lot of what has been said here today. We do appreciate it. I am not sure if there is any need for me to question it because the documents speak for themselves.
Tá áthas orm go raibh Caoimhín Ó hEaghra in ann labhairt as Gaeilge inniu. B'fhéidir gur cheart go mbeadh an cruinniú don choiste seo bheith sa seomra seo, áit gur féidir linn an Ghaeilge a úsáid más mian linn, go háirithe os rud é gurb é seo an coiste oideachais.
I will now return to the witnesses. We are running a little bit tight on time because we have another session after this one. I would appreciate it if the witnesses could make their answers brief. I can absolutely assure them that everything they have said and contributed in their written submissions will be taken on board by the committee in the report that we will be sending back to the Minister and the Department. I will go back to Mr. Caoimhín Ó hEaghra.
Mr. Caoimhín Ó hEaghra:
Táim buíoch as na ceisteanna agus na pointí a d'ardaigh baill an choiste. Ba mhaith liom ar dtús freagra a thabhairt ar cheist maidir le mhic léinn na scoile a bheith ar an mbord bainistíochta. Ní bheadh aon deacracht ag an bhForas Pátrúnachta le sin ó aon phlé a bhí againne lenár mbaill. An pointe a bhí ann ná go mbeadh treoirlínte leagtha síos a mbeadh soiléir faoin méid ina mbeadh mic léinn páirteach. Tá ciall leis. Baineann sé le guth an phobail iomlán a chloisteáil.
Maidir le na pointí an rinne an Teachta Jim Ó Dálaigh ansin faoi na heagrais bhainistíochta, níl mé ag dul ag labhairt ar son na heagrais bhainistíochta eile, ach ba mhaith liom an pointe a dhéanamh ar son an Fhorais Phátrúnachta go gcuireann muide tacaíocht ar fáil dár mboird bhainistíochta agus táimid ag iarraidh go mbeadh na boird bhainistíochta ag feidhmiú agus ag cloí le na rialacha atá leagtha síos dóibh. Tá an pointe déanta go minic ag na heagrais bhainistíochta maidir leis an maoiniú atá curtha ar fáil do lucht na mboird oiliúna nach bhfuil curtha ar fáil do na scoileanna deonacha. Tá figiúirí curtha amach go bhfuil na scoileanna deonacha ag feidhmiú le 30% níos lú maoiniú ná mar atá scoileanna faoi na boird oiliúna. Mar sin, caithfear comparáid a dhéanamh ar na leibhéil éagsúla atá ann. Ní aontaím leis an bpointe a rinne an Teachta go bhfuil na boird oiliúina chun cinn ar na heagrais bhainistíochta eile atá ag obair agus ag iarraidh cabhrú lena gcuid scoileanna.
Maidir leis an gcomhairleoireacht a rinneamar, labhraíomar le baill dár mboird bhainistíochta agus le cathaoirligh agus stiúrthóirí an Fhorais Phátrúnachta a dhéanann ionadaíocht ar ár mbaill ar fad.
Maidir leis na pointí a rinne na baill, aontaím le cuid mhaith acu. Mar a dúirt an Seanadóir Ó Gallachóir, tá go leor pointí comónta eadrainn ar fad ar gach aon taobh den bhord seo. Ceann de na pointí a dhéantar go min minic ná nach bhfuil acmhainní ag scoileanna, is cuma cén réigiún ina bhfuil siad nó má tá siad faoi na boird oiliúina nó faoi na heagrais dheonacha. Ní an tacaíocht acu agus níl an maoiniú nó na hacmhainní curtha ar fáil dóibh maidir le lár-bhainistíocht nó eile faoi láthair. Teastaíonn é sin a réiteach sula gcuirtear leibhéal eile freagrachta ar scoileanna.
Nuair a mholann muide go mba chóir go mbeadh próiseas gearán aontaithe ar bhonn reachtúil ann, braitheann muid go gcabhródh sé go mór le réiteach na fadhbanna seo. Nuair a deirtear nach n-aontaíonn muide go mba cheart go mbeadh ombudsman do oideachas ann, an pointe atáimid ag déanamh ná cén fáth an gcuirfeadh muid ombudsman do oideachas ann nuair atá Ombudsman do Leanaí ann, An Comhairle Mhúinteoireachta ann agus nuair atá freagracht ag na scoileanna do Thusla, don chigireacht agus don mhéid eile seo agus, ag an am céanna, nuair atá na boird bhainistíochta ag feidhmiú go deonach. Trí fhóram comhpháirtnéireachta, má táimid in ann teacht ar aontú nó cur chuige a fhreagraíonn na mianta atá ag an mBille seo mar atá sé ar an talamh do bhoird bhainistíochta, cinnte bheadh dul chun cinn ann. An moladh atá againne ná gur féidir leathnú a dhéanamh ar obair an Ombudsman do Leanaí in éineacht le tacaíocht eile a thabhairt do bhoird bhainistíochta. Is é sin a bhraitheann muide. Réiteodh sé sin an-chuid.
Ms Eileen Salmon:
I just want to answer the comments Deputy Martin addressed to me. I am not against students being on boards of management. I have great time for student councils. In my own school, I was very involved with them. Sometimes, one has to hold them back from wanting to be too stringent about things. They can be very opinionated. However, I do think that there are certain areas that they should not be involved in, such as areas of employment, discipline and finance.
I think the Deputy implied that there may be people on boards of management who are unsuitable. Boards of management are very well structured. The members are the nominees of trustees. In our sector, we have joint trustees. The ETB is one of our trustees. It appoints people. The ETB in the area will appoint three members to boards of management in our schools. Our religious or non-religious trustees, be they Educate Together or a religious order, appoint another three members. There are then two parent nominees and two teacher nominees. The principal is a non-voting member of the board. A lot of thought goes into it. There is a three-year rotation for boards of management. I do not think any of us believe that there are people who are just chucked in there because they want to be. They are usually chosen because they are very suitable. Being on a selection committee is a different role altogether to being on a board of management. Trustees will decide who their representatives on selection committees are going to be. One does not mean the other. Just because someone is on a board of management does not mean he or she is on a selection committee. A lot of thought goes into that. An awful lot of us are confident in our boards. As an organisation, ACCS provides training and advice to boards of management. ACCS is always there to give that advice.
As I said, I am not against students being on boards, but I would see them being involved in particular areas and not involved in others.
Disinterested parents can be the bane of a school's life. However, I believe that the charter would give very good information to parents. It would be a charter for them to read in order to understand what the role of the school is for them. However, the charter cannot be out there without parents in the reading of it realising that they have responsibilities as well. It is in the more socially-deprived areas that one finds less interested parents. It usually not that they are not interested but it is that they do not actually have the confidence to be involved. Home-school community liaison officers in DEIS schools and things like that can help parents become more involved.
Much of the charter could be used to bring parents on board and build confidence.
Mr. Michael Moriarty:
Can I just come back in on that before my colleague speaks? Deputy Martin mentioned politicians or local authority members sitting on boards of management and selection boards. Whether they are politicians or not, many of these people are accountants, lawyers or doctors. Many have other skills. In respect of our own boards, or if we nominate for the community school board, the patron body that we represent will select from among its 21 members. They are not all politicians. Some are representatives of parents, staff and the business community.
Deputy Martin made a point about members coming from the political class. In fact, I find those from that class to be very insightful. They have a great understanding and are, in fact, quite enlightened. There is a very important point here. Local authority members represent the voice of the community as well, as does Deputy Martin and other members of the committee who have been elected to high office. They represent that community voice. It is very important for any board of management to have that, because the school is rooted in the local community. Therefore, as a category of potential representatives, I would not exclude elected members of local authorities.
The second point I wish to make is that members of the boards are trained. We have a training course nationally for boards of management, a course for selection boards and there are also training courses implemented by the local ETB. Everybody is professionally trained, that is why we have such a good teaching class in our schools. I just wish to make that different point. I find I am speaking almost on Deputy Martin's side, on behalf of the political class.
Ms Joan Russell:
In addition to the selection process, it is very important to say that the ACCS and ETBI have come together to develop a competency-based interview for staff, which has very open and transparent process in terms of marking and feedback. Candidates who are unsuccessful get open feedback in respect of why they were not selected on that occasion. We were delighted to work with the ACSS on that and it is working particularly well for us.
In response to Deputy Daly, I would like to address the issue of consultation. In terms of the ETB sector, ETBI mirrors the organisational structure of ETBs. Each ETB has a director of schools who is responsible for consulting with school management, teachers, boards of management etc. in order to advise and guide the schools in terms of policy, curriculum and procedure. That is mirrored at ETBI level, with myself being the director of schools. I meet with the 16 directors of schools monthly. At last month's meeting, one of the items on the agenda was the proposal for an ombudsman for education. That predated our invitation to attend here today, but it was on the agenda. There was a robust discussion at that meeting between the 16 directors and we were asked to defer the matter to the next meeting for further consideration. There is engagement with this. That robust discussion will continue at the next directors' meeting, before we make a recommendation as directors, which will go forward to the chief executive, CE, forum, which will discuss it further and make a recommendation. We have had discussion, and we will follow on with more. I hope that clarifies the matter for Deputy Daly.
There is one other thing I would like to point out in terms of the ETB sector. I thank Deputies Daly and Byrne for their comments on ETBs and the ETB sector in terms of the openness and transparency but I would also like to highlight the creativity, inclusiveness and openness to change which is very evident in our schools. A number of colleagues have already referred to the fact that much of what is proposed in the charter is already in place. Mr. Mulconry put it very eloquently this afternoon. I agree, it is happening. Some of our colleagues also called for a forum of partners to have an input into the development of the guidelines. I will go one step further. While I welcome that call and Senator Gallagher's comment on it, I ask that a mapping exercise be carried out to capture what is happening on the ground in terms of best practice, with regard to the excellent, creative and inclusive practices to engage parents and students.
Excellent things are happening on the ground in the schools. As management bodies, we are not always aware of it. Much of it evidenced at Féilte, which is the celebration of all that is good in teaching which the Teaching Council organises. There are numerous examples of best practice and I would like to highlight one or two from the ETB sector. One is a forum for parents, which has been established in one particular ETB - the Kerry ETB. It is currently being mirrored and we are looking at it across all ETBs. There is a forum for parents across all of the schools under the Kerry ETB. It comes together and has robust discussions with the executive of the ETB and so on.
I want to highlight one or two of the achievements of that forum of 26 parents representing all of the students and parents in Kerry ETB. It has introduced Project Maths training for parents. It has provided applied maths across the scheme through webinar. That is innovative stuff from the parents and it is being facilitated through the ETB sector. It is something that can be mirrored, as I said, not just at post-primary level, but equally at primary level through our community and national school system. We look forward to continuing with that. One of the things we do at our forum director meeting every month is to share best practice across the sector.
Another thing that is happening in the schools is, in addition to the student council, we have what are called house systems, where students are grouped together in houses. They are then given merits. It is a competition between the houses, where they are given merits for things like being involved in the school community and the local community, engaging in their classrooms, achieving a holistic education and engaging broadly with education. They are given merits on that system and an award is given at the end of the year. My colleague, Mr. Rowe, referred to restorative justice earlier. Again, restorative justice is very evident in our schools. A number of our ETBs, Limerick, Clare, Donegal, Kerry and Cork, have engaged in the whole restorative justice training for staff, parents and students. A lot is happening and my message to the committee is to make sure that the schools on the ground have an opportunity to engage and to put forward what they are doing which could support the charter in its development through the different stages.
I am sorry to interrupt. I just wish to apologise, I have to leave. I am meeting an ambassador upstairs and I do not want to leave her waiting. I will read back the comments of the remaining speakers, but I have to leave. I apologise for that.
Mr. Seamus Mulconry:
I have two brief points and then I would like to hand over to my colleague for a further point. First, on the issue of resources, it is true that the overall budget for education is €8 billion but schools are expected to pay for insurance, heating, lighting, cleaning and so on on 92 cent per pupil per school day. I am always conscious, when I stop off and get a cup of coffee and a bun and spend €5 on it, that I have just blown the budget for a week for a school student. We need to be conscious of that. I would therefore strongly resent taking money from front-line resources and putting it into another layer of administration.
Second, I have a concern around the advocacy. The real strategic challenge facing the primary school sector is that the pace of change has contributed to a major administrative burden which is now unsustainable for teaching principals. In 1984, a person starting had a roll book and a receipt book. That was the level of administration. There is now a huge amount more than that. It has increased exponentially. It is not just that, however. There has been a period of almost unprecedented change in the Irish education system. A huge raft of legislation and of changing demographics is creating a situation which principals are starting to look at and say they cannot take any more. The reason we have a very good primary school system is the quality and calibre of the people who work in and lead our schools and the commitment of boards of management, members of which have to be arm wrestled onto them. It is their commitment. If we overburden them, we risk breaking the system. We have a plethora of advocates, who have loads of things they would like the primary school system to do. We would benefit greatly from a period of masterful inactivity, which would allow schools to absorb all of the changes and focus on what is most important, that is, teaching.
Ms Sinéad Brett:
In reference to Deputy Daly's point that we are against an ombudsman for education because of a fear factor, that is simply not the case. If we felt that the office of an ombudsman for education would better the education experience for a single child in the country we would support it, but we feel - and the point has been made here - that there are plenty of fora for dealing with issues when they arise.
The resources we have there now would be better for the system than setting up another office for dealing with issues in education. Deputy Daly referred to the cost. We are very sensitive to cost in the primary sector because schools are under-resourced. I am glad to hear the Deputies and Senators acknowledge the lack of resources in the system and that we need to pump more money in.
I am absolutely delighted by Deputy Nolan's point about middle management. It is a live issue. It would be fantastic if the committee could encourage the Minister to pump the resources into middle management because it is where the money is absolutely needed.
Deputy Daly mentioned people in his constituency who want to get on boards of management but cannot. Our experience is the same as Senator Gallagher's; it is very difficult to get people to give up their time to come onto boards of management. The suggestion that there is something underhand about the way people get on boards of management has to be corrected. A governance manual is published by the Department of Education and Skills which sets out clear procedures to be followed when members are elected to boards of management. Deputy Martin mentioned the interview processes and the suggestion only people with political contacts get onto boards of management. I agree with Mr. Michael Moriarty's point that boards of management have people from all walks of life on them. There are procedures in place. I am only speaking from a primary sector perspective. There are procedures set out which are based on best practice. Boards of management and selection panels on boards of management have to follow those procedures.
I am delighted with the points on middle management. If the committee has any sway with the Minister, I strongly urge it to encourage restoring resources and middle management to primary schools.
I assure Ms Brett we take every opportunity to do so. Every time the Minister is here to deal with Estimates we emphasise the need for more resources in schools and for middle management to be restored.
Ms Breda Corr:
I did not say all members of boards of management are politicians. Mr. Moriarty raised the issue of the ETB. It is out of his control but the facts are the political party who wins the local election is the party who gets the nomination onto the ETB. It is out of Mr. Moriarty's control but that is how it works at local authority level.
Is that the recipe for the best person? Undoubtedly some great people make it onto the boards but it comes down to politics, which is what I was querying. The board of management has to deal with who it gets. Sometimes they are brilliant. I was wondering if that has to be reviewed.
Ms Breda Corr:
I will address some of the points Deputy Daly raised. It is always the practice of NABMSE to consult with its members but due to the short timeframe we had to prepare, we consulted with our committee which is made up of representatives of boards of management in different types of schools. That is important. The time of year is not conducive to trying to consult with our member schools. On the cost issue, I would much prefer to see €700,000, or whatever the cost of the Ombudsman for Children, going into training boards of management. Members of the committee are not aware the budget has been cut by the Department in previous years. The Department will not thank me for saying it but it is the reality.
Education for children with special educational needs can involve more than just education. If we are to have one ombudsman, it would be better if it was somebody who could deal with various aspects of special educational needs.
Senator Maria Byrne gave the example of an appeal to the board of management. It would require resources in any school if something was to be done. The Senator talked about behaviour. There are huge costs involved but it is something we would love to see.
Senator Gallagher talked about boards of management. It can be extremely difficult to get parents involved in boards of management in special schools where it is not their local area. The Senator is familiar with the special school in Cavan-Monaghan where students come from Leitrim, Cavan and Monaghan. If a parent has a child with severe and profound special educational needs, who will mind the child when the parent is at the board meeting? We value the parents we have. We need to get away from the phrase "parents' representatives" because they are parents' nominees. They are nominees to a board and they do not represent a particular sector. They need to act as a body corporate. It is really important.
If we put pupils on the boards of management, for example in the Holy Family School in Cootehill, which the Senator is familiar with, how will their voices be heard on the board of management?
Fr. Paul Connell:
I am delighted by the consensus that has emerged here this evening. I welcome it. As a working principal, I have experienced a tsunami of initiatives over the past number of years. The energy in our schools, which should be student-centred and directed towards the student, is increasingly being diverted to deal with more and more bureaucracy. I appeal to the committee not to introduce more and to make things better, not worse for our schools.
Deputy Daly mentioned the small cost. There is a cost in the lives and energy of the people who work in our schools. There is a cost in the lives and energies of good working people who sit on our boards of management and who give seven, eight or nine nights a year to sitting on those boards. They can do without sitting for another nine nights dealing with grievance procedures and other things which will make things far worse. Whatever is done by the committee, I ask it to make sure it does not increase the burden on our schools.
I am disappointed that Deputy Daly put on the record of the committee that some of our bodies are not open and transparent. It is very unfortunate. I hope he will withdraw it. We have articles of management. We have systems in place for how our boards are brought together and elected. They are absolutely and completely open and transparent. I go along with all the comments of my colleagues here. It is very difficult to get parents involved in boards of management because of the huge and increasing level of responsibility being placed on them by rafts of new legislation.
Our schools could not survive without our parents. We depend on them. We cannot operate what we have without the support of our parents. I agree with Deputy Byrne we need more resources not more legislation.
Ms Antoinette Nic Gearailt:
I am sorry Deputy Daly is gone because he asked about consultation. We have had an executive meeting. The executive is composed of school principals, members of boards of management who are not working directly in the schools, parents and teachers working on the ground. There is a relatively wide consultation base.
I agree with Fr. Paul Connell that the comment about certain management areas being more open than others is an unfortunate misrepresentation of the reality. Our structures may be different but huge work is put into the training of the boards. ACCS trains each board of management individually and collectively. They are as well informed as they possibly can be. As Deputy Martin said, some of them come in from an area outside of education. In terms of school management, huge investment is put into training. This year, 95 of the 96 schools are in regular contact with ACCS when making decisions. The schools that are not are heavily involved at ACCS level so the committee can take it as 100%.
Many decisions that are taken at board level are taken on advice. When things go wrong most issues are resolved at school level, to be honest, but there are the same channels of appeal. Deputy Daly implied that there are no channels of appeal. I will not reiterate them again but there are structured avenues, whether it is about teacher employment, student enrolment or exclusion and so forth. It does not matter whether it is ETBI, JMB or ACCS schools because the structures are in place.
The fear factor was raised as well. As other people said, it is not a fear but a fear of duplication, a risk that we are duplicating what already exists. The point John Curtis made earlier is important. Why are we separating education from childhood? Children are children and what impacts on their education is very often other factors outside of school. That is probably one of the main reasons to keep it with the Ombudsman for Children. Fr. Paul Connell spoke about the level of bureaucracy. As regards the €700,000 or €800,000, many schools would take that. It would go a long way towards paying the clerical officers, caretakers and so forth, or to work on the fabric of school buildings. Money should go where it is needed. It needs to go to supporting children on the ground, not into a structure that already exists. As Senator Gallagher said earlier, perhaps we could tweak what we already have if there are perceived gaps rather than putting another layer of administration in place.
Finally, Eileen and Joan mentioned parents. An unknown amount of work goes into encouraging parents to be involved, to be honest. I worked in an area where lack of confidence was probably the main thing that kept parents out. There is phenomenal work done on the ground to try to give parents the sense that they can walk through the school door, particularly if their own experience in their past leaves them a little reluctant to do so. However, we should be cognisant that the hardest time to get parents involved was during the time of the so-called Celtic tiger economy. Parents' lives became so busy it was difficult to get them involved in the school.
Dr. Ken Fennelly:
Deputy Daly is gone but I wish to comment for the sake of the record. This is not our first time appearing before the committee to talk about the proposed ombudsman for education. It would have gone to our board of education. It would also have gone to the Church of Ireland Primary School Management Association executive. Recently, it came up in the informal discussion groups at our conference. I note the Deputy used the word "resistance". It was not resistance. People just were not convinced of the necessity for it. It is important to say that. I support what Fr. Paul said. I skipped over my first paragraph for the sake of time and I spoke very quickly.
Mr. Paul Rowe:
I was asked about consultation. Educate Together operates national schools, voluntary secondary schools, community schools and community colleges, so we have a very good viewpoint with which to address this. With regard to what consultation we carried out, we consulted with all the programme managers of Educate Together. They are responsible for the management of all of those schools.
I wish to respond to the accusation that there is a fear of an ombudsman. In concert with the other representatives here, what we are really concerned about is a duplication of roles and an increasing burden on boards of management in a way that would be counterproductive. In terms of the money, we all should reflect a certain indignation about this. As regards a sum of €800,000, I am under pressure to open 25 new Educate Together schools. I could open nine of them with that. This is not a small sum, so it should not be just tossed around. I note that in the previous hearing there was a reference to spending €1 million or €2 million of the education budget on this role. Almost all of us here were volunteers originally. None of us is working on a high salary. We are here because we are dedicated to education and we are all acutely aware of the enormous pressure schools have been under in financial matters. The capitation grant has been cut, our core grants have been cut and all our additional resourcing has been cut. For example, in our role as a signature for the Garda vetting process we are still operating on half the grant we need for that role. It is important that we represent that.
The argument we would put forward is, as Breda Corr has pointed out, that the types of things an ombudsman would be dealing with would frequently have an inter-sectionality between education, social services and the security services. If there is an effective role of ombudsman it should be the Ombudsman for Children addressing those issues. A majority of the most difficult complaints we have to deal with are usually because our system has put parents of children with special needs in such a situation that they have only been able to get resources for their children as a result of having to take a combative, confrontational role in order to get those resources. That is a shameful reflection on the way in which the system operates.
I strongly disagree with the view that the ETBs, which we work with and respect, are somehow way ahead of all the other providers in terms of transparency. We are all legally responsible for carrying out proper transparent services. They are statutory obligations. We all agree that there is a need to review the current complaints process and that a new, revised complaints process with an appeal mechanism is needed. We are very comfortable with that, but it does not require another raft of State ombudsman services.
Deputy Martin asked-----
Mr. Paul Rowe:
I was asked how student representatives on the boards of our second level schools work. I will explain how this operates. First, this is part of Educate Together's blueprint or guiding document for second level schools. It is to articulate the student voice as much as possible throughout every way the school operates and the way the curriculum is delivered. This is a question of articulating the discovery and exploratory learning. As part of that, the student councils are brought in to participate in selection processes for teachers, students have been involved in the selection process for the principals of our new schools and they are welcome and honoured participants in the boards of management. The difficulty we have is that there is no proper statutory basis for this participation.
For example, young people can sign themselves into hospital at the age of 16, irrespective of their parents' wishes. However, the legal status of minor finishes at age 18. That is why we would like that issue to be addressed properly in the charter. There should be proper legislative backing for that. I will answer the other questions in writing if the committee wishes.
I was about to suggest that. If there is anything anyone wants to add, we would be delighted to receive it in writing for circulation to the members. On behalf of the committee, I note that we are very conscious of the wealth of knowledge and experience represented by the witnesses. We are grateful not only that the witnesses attended today and provided us with their insights and thoughts but for the work they do on a day-to-day basis to support schools, boards of management and teachers and to ensure that every school runs as effectively as possible while remaining student-centred. It is a huge body of work and is very much appreciated by the committee.
We will adjourn for a few minutes to allow the witnesses to leave and the new witnesses to come in.