Wednesday, 10 November 2010
Education (Amendment) Bill 2010: Second Stage (Resumed)
Michael Ahern (Cork East, Fianna Fail)
Over the past ten years or so, there has been an increase in our population as a result of immigration which has brought significant changes in the ethnic, cultural, religious and language aspects of our society. These changes have had an impact not only on society in general but particularly on education, more so to date at primary level than at the other levels. Also in that period, different structures of patronage in primary schools arose, moving away from the traditional model which had its foundations in the establishment of the national school system in 1831 and under which the patron was the Catholic bishop, Protestant bishop or the head of a religious organisation. Now, with non-denominational and multi-denominational schools, new patronage structures have developed where, for example, the patron is usually a board of trustees, as in the case of Educate Together. Gaelscoileanna may be under the patronage of church authorities but may also opt to be under the patronage of Foras Pátrúnachta na Scoileanna Lán-Ghaeilge Teo, which is a limited company set up for this purpose.
The changes due to population increase and diversity, allied to the indication by the Catholic Church regarding the possible divesting of patronage of some of its schools, and the problems experienced in getting patrons for new primary schools in some areas, place the onus on the Department of Education and Skills to establish a new model for school patronage. In 2007, the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Mary Hanafin, outlined a new State model under the VEC. As the Tánaiste, Deputy Mary Coughlan, noted in her speech, the new patronage model is currently being piloted in five locations in counties Dublin, Meath and Kildare. The experience to date indicates that the pilot schools are successfully addressing the changing demands and expectations of the society in which we now live, and the feedback from the key stakeholders, namely, the pupils, their parents, the teachers and school management, is, as the Tánaiste stated, overwhelmingly positive.
Some have raised the concern that the ethos that exists in the majority of the schools in the country would be radically changed by the VECs taking over primary schools. I do not believe they have any real need for concern. The VECs have been in operation at secondary school level for many years and they have not destroyed the faith, ethos or beliefs of the people who went to school there.
The question of the ownership and control of schools was raised. The Bill sets out that the board of management of a VEC or primary school will be a body corporate with perpetual succession and power to sue and may be sued in its corporate name. The board of management of a VEC-run primary school will not be a sub-committee of a VEC. It shall keep proper accounts and records of expenditure, and ensure the accounts are audited or certified in accordance with best accounting practice. An appeal against a decision of a board of management of a VEC-run school will not be heard by the VEC and thereafter by the Secretary General but will follow the appeal structure of other primary schools.
The INTO is favourable towards the decision of the Minister and argues that this approach reflects the diversity of modern Ireland by accommodating all school pupils in one school. The Irish Vocational Education Association argues the new school model can accommodate the provision of separate religious education to those of different faiths and no faith within the school curriculum. Professor Tom Collins, head of education at NUI Maynooth, is supportive of managing diversity in schools by promoting an intercultural approach. I spent a number of years teaching in the West Indies where there were many Catholics, Protestants, Hindus and Muslims in the same school. Their mixing from a young age meant they grew up knowing each other as normal human beings, and the fact they were of different religions did not mean they were any better or worse than the others. It was very positive for society in the long term to have young people going to school and playing sport together from a young age.
An area that is raising hackles is the question of the registration of employment of non-registered teachers. Under section 30 of the 2001 Act, there was an express prohibition of payment of non-registered teachers from State funds but that section was never enacted. Section 12 of the Bill introduces an amended section 30 of the Act, which generally requires that all teachers be registered but also allows for the employment of non-registered teachers in specific limited circumstances, as the Tánaiste made clear in her speech. To safeguard the standards and quality of education in Irish schools, it is the Government's policy that, in so far as possible, all persons employed as teachers in a recognised school are registered teachers, but it allows for exceptions where there is a need to facilitate the urgent, temporary or occasional staffing needs of schools, the desirability of minimising disruption to the education of students and consideration of the qualifications and, if any, the teaching experience of an unregistered teacher.
Regulations will also be introduced to allow unregistered teachers to teach and these are listed in the following manner: "An unregistered teacher may only", "A school may", "The employment of each unregistered teacher may", "A time limit may", "Unregistered teachers may", and "An unregistered teacher may". When I read the word "may" so many times, I wonder whether this allows for a coach and four to be driven through what was intended.