Dáil debates

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Education (Amendment) Bill 2010: Second Stage (Resumed)


5:00 pm

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)

I am glad of the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I recognise the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Haughey, this evening for this important debate.

This legislation has been in gestation for some years. The initial announcement on the legislation was approximately two years ago. We have had a number of Ministers responsible for education in the interim. Much has changed over the period in question, not least owing to the financial difficulties that have affected the country and the enormous pressure on the education and other budgets.

One of the best developments is the cross-party acceptance of the necessity to amalgamate VECs. I was the first politician to propose this and was attacked for doing so by colleagues on the other side of the House. I proposed it more than a year ago. At a time of scarce resources, we must direct funding under the education budget towards the front line and focus on quality. If this means altering structures and back-office positions, we must do so. I welcome the fact that the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, is a new convert to the idea of amalgamating VECs. I very much regret that her predecessor did not get on with the job two or three years ago when we had a blank canvas to start afresh. Much has changed in the two-year period to which I refer.

The Bill refers to the new community schools. Such schools are up and running. Two schools in west Dublin have been established and more are to become established. In many respects, the idea of a community national school is a little bizarre. The truth of the matter is that we have community national schools all over the country.

As I have stated in the past, in the great majority of cases these schools are Catholic but with a small "c". They are rooted in their communities and are attended by children of all faiths and none. These schools have served the country well and they have made a major impression on the learning experience of the children who have attended them.

It is not correct to say that there have never been State schools. I accept that they constitute a minority example but the model schools are effectively controlled by the Minister with responsibility for education and, prior to Independence, they were controlled by the commissioners for education. In addition, the VECs have been involved in post-primary education provision for many years. The idea has been put forward that what is proposed in the Bill is radically different. At one level it is radically different because, effectively, we are recognising the VECs as new patrons within the primary school system. However, I would not like people to think that the concept of community national schools is in some way new.

I accept that a number of issues must be addressed. Deputy Quinn has alluded to a fundamental issue in respect of which action is required and which is not dealt with in an adequate manner in the Bill. I refer to the provision of denominational religious tuition within the framework of the new community national schools. The Constitution is absolutely clear in respect of this matter. Article 42.2 states: "Parents shall be free to provide this education in their homes or in private schools or in schools recognised or established by the State." There was never a difficulty in providing State schools in Ireland because from 1937 onwards there has been a clear recognition that they can be provided. This matter was further highlighted in the Education Act 1998. So there has never been a problem with regard to this fundamental question of a pure State school.

As previous speakers stated, the problem arises with regard to how it might be possible to provide religious denominational tuition within the confines of the daily routine of a State school. It is one thing to say that State schools provide the full curriculum - including multi-faith options, which are a fundamental part of the entire religious curriculum - on a daily basis from 9 a.m. to 2.30 p.m or 3 p.m. However, it is legally dubious to suggest that denominational instruction should be provided during the course of the school day. Such instruction can be provided after school, either in local churches or people's homes. Has consideration been given to whether it can be provided in the new schools that are to be established? I am not convinced that the Bill is constitutional in that regard.

In the various test cases that have been taken in the context of employment and other legislation, the Supreme Court has found that the Constitution fundamentally respects the right of religious schools to exist. It has also found that the Constitution respects the right of the authorities at such schools to select, based on their enrolment policies, both the children who will attend them and, based on religious criteria or whatever, the teachers who will provide instruction in them. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has always held that these schools have a right to exist and that the Constitution upholds that right. However, it is entirely different to suggest that a State primary school has the right to provide, within the course of the school day, religious tuition by denominational groups. I am of the view that the Bill could falter on that point and I would be interested in hearing the Tánaiste's opinion when she replies to the debate.

I and others had made calls for the introduction of a Bill of this nature for some years. I had come to the view that it would be a good development if we were to provide another type of educational choice, in the form of community national schools, in order to reflect the new multi-faith and multicultural Ireland. However, I have changed my mind. The Bill represents a missed opportunity. In the few years that I shadowed the Tánaiste, Deputy Coughlan, and her predecessors in the Department, I came to the view that what is needed is a root-and-branch reform of the structures which govern the education system. I am of the view that, ultimately, such an approach will require the Department of Education and Skills to be broken up.

If this approach is adopted, we must consider with what we might replace the Department. In my view, the new amalgamated VECs will be the logical intermediary between the Department and primary and post-primary schools and institutions which provide adult and community education. The VECs are the logical choice to form a stratum of government between the national and the local. In light of what I am suggesting, how would it be logical to ask the VECs to become the patrons of new primary schools? If I was to establish a new system of education, I would argue that the VECs should be responsible for regional educational policy in its entirety. Effectively, this would mean that they would be obliged to divest themselves of the post-primary schools for which they are responsible. There would be major suspicion on the part of Educate Together, the gaelscoileanna, voluntary secondary schools and a range of religious and other providers if the VECs became the new intermediaries responsible for local decision-making and if they did not divest themselves of their schools. If they did not follow the latter course, the VECs could not be perceived to be neutral providers.

There is some international evidence which supports the view that the Department of Education and Skills should be broken up. If effect, the evidence suggests that the Department should be responsible for monitoring curricular development, should engage in evaluation and should set policy. At present, every decision relating to education is taken by the Department. The system is crazy. Decisions on circulars dealing with everything from the advent of nuclear winter to instructions on how to repair a window must all be made by the Department in its various guises.

We must break the centralised approach and liberate school communities by establishing an intermediate system of governance. The obvious way to achieve this would be through the structures relating to the VECs. When she was Minister, Niamh Bhreathnach proposed the establishment of another tier - comprising regional education boards - between those relating to the Department and the VECs. The convincing arguments made against this proposal was that the money was simply not available and that if it were available, it would instead be invested in employing additional teachers or providing new schools. The arguments I refer to won the day.


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