Wednesday, 10 November 2010
Education (Amendment) Bill 2010: Second Stage (Resumed)
Michael D'Arcy (Wexford, Fine Gael)
I begin with a word of thanks to the religious orders which provided top class education over many generations. It is appropriate that their service be recognised. It was a service and a vocation for many.
Unfortunately for the good ones, a small number of bad ones sullied their reputation.
Given that 92% of primary schools have bishops as patrons, dioceses continue to maintain a strong grip on primary education in this country. At the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, it is time we moved education provision away from the religious and towards the State. I am not satisfied with the structures of boards of management at primary level. The fact that two staff members who are in the employ of the patron and two representatives of the patron, one of whom is the chairperson, comprise one half of the eight members of a board ensures that the religious retain control. That is no longer acceptable.
Many first class people sit on boards of management in the interest of their children's education. However, these people are not invited to participate in interview panels for the hiring and firing of teachers. As a former chair of County Wexford VEC, I have form in this area and I clearly recognise the benefits to be gained from people who are willing to participate. Thankfully, I was never involved in the firing of a teacher. It is not easy to hire staff and the community as a whole should have a greater input into hiring decisions rather than leaving it in the hands of religious orders. Particularly in our current economic circumstances, parents want to give their children an education so they can achieve more than previous generations. While I would not go as far as to describe parents as aggressive, they are certainly less docile with patrons or boards of management than they were in the past. We should use their strengths to good effect.
One of the best examples I can offer of proactive parents involves the national school in a little place called Ballythomas, in which my father - a former Member of this House - and I were educated and which my children are currently attending. The school was housed in the old standard 1900 building, with walls two feet thick. The community had the choice of either using a funding provision of €120,000 to construct two additional classrooms or using the money to build an entirely new school. It was decided to build a new school with four classrooms and an area 5,500 sq. ft. I wish to take this opportunity to thank the parents of the community for their outstanding efforts in raising almost €200,000 out of a total building cost of €480,000.
The Bill before us will allow VECs to become patrons at primary level, which is to be welcomed as a step in the right direction. Equally, however, we need to be careful because, while VECs have been providing secondary education for decades, they do not have expertise in primary education. We must provide them with the expertise and knowledge they need to ensure a smooth transfer of patronage. Furthermore, we must avoid replacing the religious structure with another closed shop. I acknowledge that local authority members and staff representatives are included on the boards of VECs but we must tap into the pool of eager and willing parents. Educate Together has been very successful in including parents on boards of management.
Although I have cautioned against overlapping services on many occasions, I hope that the merger of VECs in my area of Wexford and Wicklow results in a cohesive structure. Having participated in the development of Fine Gael's policy on county committees for education, I think we should consider such a structure for primary as well as secondary education. The current structure sets one school against another and every Deputy has been lobbied by boards of management. Nobody knows why one school is on a list when another is left out. A county structure would allow us to decide how to prioritise schools based on their facilities and needs. This would assist public representatives in making representations to their local bodies when something is untoward or unreasonable instead of forcing them to go in different directions. When Deputy Brian Hayes visited the biggest school in the country, Gorey Community School, of which I am a former board member, I advised him that we should develop these structures in order to provide clarity on funding for school buildings and extensions.
Fine Gael and the Labour Party have each developed policies on Educate Together patronage at the post-primary level. I give Educate Together my full support as a patron of secondary schools and I ask why this Bill is not being used to advance its cause.