Dáil debates

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

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


5:00 pm

Photo of Mary UptonMary Upton (Dublin South Central, Labour)

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the debate this evening on the future direction of patronage of our primary schools.

The increased demand for different types of primary schools reflects the profound changes that have occurred in our society in the past decade. These changes have been in terms of both demographics and beliefs. In the past decade we experienced a huge migration of people from various societal backgrounds into the country and escalating birth rates. At present, we are experiencing the highest birth rates in almost 30 years. We have also seen the number of persons defining themselves as Catholic decline while there has been an increase in those of other faiths and those who are classified as having no religion. These societal changes invariably impact on the demand for, and the nature of, the schooling we provide.

Last month, I attended a family day organised by the Portobello Educate Together start-up group, which has been in contact with me, and my colleagues Deputy Ruairí Quinn and Senator Ivana Bacik, since its foundation in January. It is concerned about the lack of multi-denominational school places for children in the areas of Dublin 2, 6, 8 and 12. The group has been running a campaign for a long time on this and it is clear there is a huge demand for provision for this cohort. The parents want their children to receive primary school education in an environment that provides for each of the major faith communities attending the school, rather than the traditional model of denominational schools. There is an enormous demand for multi-denominational places in my constituency of Dublin South-Central and in the constituency of Dublin South-East, and given the demographic changes in the area and rising birth rates, this demand is sure to increase even further.

Given the speed at which these changes are happening we need a new approach to cater for the wishes of parents about how their children are to be educated. Central to this has to be input from the parents. During the so-called "boom times", when our construction industry was producing 80,000 and 90,000 units a year, each August we had the annual blot on our copybook when distressed parents in the fast-growing commuter towns and beyond took to the airwaves to highlight the shortage of school places for their children. The main issue these parents faced was getting their children into any school, which invariably consisted, unfortunately, of prefabs, and concerns about the ethos of the school were often far from their minds at the time.

This situation arose out of a culture of development that failed to provide for the basic needs of an area, much less take account of the wishes of the people who were going to make the place a community. Into this vacuum stepped groups such as Educate Together and great credit must be given to them for this work. It is deeply unfortunate that when we had the money to do this, the Government failed to adequately provide the necessary school buildings; now, while our construction industry is on the floor and the State coffers are bare it is hard to see how this demand will be met, but it has to be met. The urgency is there to facilitate the many parents in the community I mentioned who collectively have made a very strong case for the provision of a multi-denominational school to cater for the educational needs of their children.

One proposal by the Portobello Educate Together group and others is to allow for the transfer of patronage of existing schools to multi-denominational, non-denominational or inter-denominational management. This approach could be facilitated by the existing patrons as a means to take account of the changing nature of an area and to provide schooling in accordance with the parents' wishes. The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Diarmuid Martin, has suggested that in some areas the Catholic Church may be over-represented as it may have a disproportionate number of schools in areas where there have been significant cultural and religious changes. This point of view from the archbishop is very welcome, heralding an open and progressive attitude towards educational facilities for the children of this country.

The aim of this legislation is to provide for direct State involvement in the establishment of primary schools and the framework by which VECs become patrons of primary schools. In 2007, Deputy Mary Hanafin, as the then Minister for Education and Science, announced plans to devise a new model of community national school that would be designed to cater for the diversity of beliefs in an area served by a primary school. Since that announcement, the Labour Party and others have called for a national forum to discuss a vision for primary school patronage. This was done in order to call attention to the issues around the role of the 19th century patronage system in a 21st century society, as well as to debate the diversification of patronage of schools.

In the existing system of primary school patronage, the patron is generally a representative of a religious faith and the ethos of the patron is taught in the school. In the case of Catholic or Church of Ireland schools, bishops are the patrons in a diocese with the local priest or rector carrying out the functions on behalf of the bishop. The patron of multi-denominational schools is usually a board of trustees. This system exists even though almost all schools depend on the State for the bulk of their funding and are governed by State rules and regulations. The patron may manage the school personally or appoint a board of management to act as manager. The patron retains powers over two appointments to the boards, as well as the appointment of a chairperson and also over the approval of the appointment of teachers. While these powers are generally exercised in the best interests of the school and its students, it maintains religious control over education in an area, even when demographic and other societal changes take place and all the indicators are that there should be a review of the existing provisions to cater for a new ethos or culture.

The role of the principal of a school should also be reformed with regard to control of a school. Boards of management should devolve more autonomy and responsibility to the school principal in the management and operation of a school. School principals are the people with the most knowledge of, and ability relating to, the running of a school and they should be given a great say in the operation of the school. In practice, it is also the case that school principals have a major role to play in the direction of the school and delivery of the education programme. However, this role and responsibility should be acknowledged in real terms in legislation.

Similarly the changes to school ethos must also apply to teachers and the changed beliefs of our teachers should also be taken into consideration. The Labour Party has proposed a freedom of conscience provision for students and teachers in our State-financed teacher training colleges. It is simply unfair for our teachers, who are paid through public funds, to feel they have to deny or misrepresent their beliefs to comply with a school ethos.

What was proposed by the Labour Party and a number of other parties on a national forum on patronage with all stakeholders is now required to provide a wider range of choice in the ethos of primary schools. There are divergent views of how we should proceed as a society with regard to schooling. For instance, the route we are progressing towards here is similar to that experienced in other countries where the availability of choice based on religious beliefs or lack thereof is the guiding principle behind school provision and management. Questions about the desirability of this approach should be discussed with regard to the potential effects in terms of social cohesion of educating all our children separately according to the beliefs of their parents. This has been mentioned by a number of speakers.

We are moving from a time when society was relatively homogenous into a time of great diversity and stratification. However, this must take place as part of a broader discussion about the nature of our education policies and the changes in society. We live in a very different environment and culture than that which existed even ten years ago, and we must adapt to this changed society by maintaining the best aspects of our education system while taking account of the new realities that are impacting on our society.

An issue raised previously is with regard to insurance in schools and the availability of school facilities to the wider community. To a great extent, this is a red herring and it has to be grasped. We are now in an time when facilities are at a premium and capital investment is unlikely to take place in the foreseeable future. Why is it that a good capital project already up and running, by way of a gym hall in a school, cannot be used by the wider community without a huge fuss about insurance? This is not a real issue; it is put there as an artificial barrier to people using the facility. It is time for the Department of Education and Skills to take this on, address it and ensure that such facilities are made available to all of the people in the wider community. I am addressing this issue from the point of view of sporting facilities being available to a community. There is great demand for sporting facilities in areas where there exists in a school a very good facility that could be made far more widely available to the community.

I find that in the current climate, and we will have to consider this for the future, there is no justification for having in this legislation a reference to untrained or unqualified teachers. Given the current climate, and the number of primary school teachers in particular whom I know personally who do not have full-time jobs or even part-time jobs and who are on panels and dependent on an hour here and there, for all types of reasons they are the people who should be given first bite of the cherry. If it is a choice between untrained teachers and the availability of new teachers just out of college then surely the decision has to be in favour of the young teachers coming on board. The Bill uses the phrase, "in so far as possible". How does one define "in so far as possible"? It is just an excuse to allow this to continue and it should not be part of this legislation.


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