Wednesday, 10 November 2010
Education (Amendment) Bill 2010: Second Stage (Resumed)
Michael D'Arcy (Wexford, Fine Gael)
I realise that but we were told previously that legislation would be required. This Bill is the perfect vehicle for progressing the Educate Together patronage model because it will not flounder in the House for years. In my home town of Gorey, there is competition for patronage of a new post-primary school. I did not realise until I met representatives of Educate Together that I signed the application for County Wexford VEC to become the patron of the second post-primary school in Gorey. I had forgotten I signed it, in my then capacity as chairman of the VEC, until they reminded me of it. I support the VEC fully. I hope it will become the patron of the new school. Equally, I suggest that post-primary patronage by Educate Together, which is a larger question, should happen sooner rather than later.
I wish to reflect on an aspect of the post-primary education provided in Gorey Community School. Deputies might be aware that it is the largest school in the country. Its operation is a magnificent social experiment. I appreciate that it was not started with that in mind. Everybody in the Gorey area goes to the same school, regardless of social class or the primary school they attended. In my view, they all merge extremely well together. My criticism is that the school is so large that square pegs sometimes have to be put in round holes. There can be occasions when students fall through the cracks caused by the size of the school. That is why I am delighted that an announcement on the establishment of a second post-primary school will be made next week, if not before the end of this week.
When I attended my nephew's 18th birthday party in recent weeks - it had been a while since I attended such a party - I noticed a great mix and camaraderie among the students who were in attendance. It is probable that it did not exist in the past, when boys and girls attended separate schools. The system that was in place was almost one of apartheid. The social mix in the secondary school in Gorey is outstanding. I am pleased that the "good school, bad school" mentality which exists in many rural towns does not exist in Gorey. There is no perception that one social class should go to a certain school and another social class should go to a different school. It is a step in the right direction at this stage in our social development.
There can be no doubt that the ownership of schools, which has been mentioned, should be transferred directly to the State. The Department of Education and Skills pays all the wages. In our case, it provided the vast majority of the funding for the development of our premises. In the vast majority of schools, the State provides the money. The transfer should be clean and immediate. I would like it to happen sooner rather than later.
I am not too pleased about the transfer of authority over speech and language services from the Department of Education and Skills to the HSE. I assume, knowing the way things are done in this country, there has been no geographical analysis of the services that are available on a county by county basis. I am familiar with what is happening in the HSE and the legacy of speech and language services in County Wexford. We are a long way behind the other counties in the south-east region. The local health board was traditionally based in Kilkenny, which has a much bigger number of staff providing speech and language services than Wexford. The regional hospital is located in Waterford, which also has many more services than Wexford. The reason in both cases relates to legacy issues.
When one questions what will happen in the speech and language area, one is not given an answer. If the entire speech and language regime is to be transferred from the Department to the HSE, I will go along with it as long as a full assessment is produced to show it will lead to a level playing field for students. If these services are to be retained as they are currently constituted, however, I will not go along with it. The legacy of the existing system is that children in my local area do not get the speech and language services they require on a par with children in other counties. When one asks questions about the shortcomings in the system, one does not receive any answers, other than to be told "that is the way it is" or "that is the legacy", which is not acceptable.
I would like to speak about the employment of unqualified teaching personnel. I fully support the proposal that priority should be given to teachers who are not in employment, as opposed to teachers who have retired, when teaching opportunities arise. I hate the use of the term "who are unemployed", as it is better to say "who are not in employment". Hundreds of positions are being filled by retired teachers at present. I accept it can be difficult for school managers to ensure a teacher is available at short notice, for example, if a member of staff is sick. Boards of management and VECs should make a genuine effort to ensure such positions are offered to teachers who are looking for employment. The Minister said yesterday that the Department has sent a circular letter to that effect to schools. Retired teachers who received lump sum payments at the end of their teaching careers, and are now claiming pensions, should not be offered these positions.
Having said that, we should be careful not to box everything into pigeon holes. I would like to qualify that. If an experienced or retired teacher is required to deal with a student with particular learning or educational disabilities, it is important that we allow such a teacher to be brought into a school. That is the exception - it is not the rule. We need to ensure it is underpinned by legislation.
I have spoken about speech and language services. As somebody who is familiar with such services, I ask the Minister and the Department to scrutinise closely what is available. These services have not been provided to a member of my family, unfortunately. I have also spoken about the patronage issue.
It is unfortunate that practically all students in some areas come from an immigrant background. Ireland is good assimilating people well. The ghettoisation of children through the school system should not be happening at all, but that is what has happened, in effect. I have a real difficulty with it. I am annoyed by it because a child does not know he or she is from an immigrant background until he or she is shoved into a particular area and told he or she has a different ethnicity from most of society. Pupils who attend schools that accept children from many ethnic backgrounds are assimilated very well. As I said earlier, parents have no choice in places like Gorey where there is just one school. They do not have the luxury of sending their children to the local good school rather than the local bad school.
I hope my views on the establishment of county education committees are considered. It would be a positive development to put in place a body to liaise between various interests in each county when educational and other disadvantages, such as problems with speech and language services, arise in the locality. Such a structure would allow all parties in the county to speak with a unified voice when the Department needs to be contacted. We need to ensure action is taken in areas that are disadvantaged for various reasons - there may be legacy issues or a failure to fill positions, for example.
I welcome this Bill, which would represent a perfect vehicle for legislative underpinning of the decision to allow Educate Together to become a post-primary patron. I have been told that such legislative underpinning is not required, but it would be better in the greater scheme of things if it were done. Similarly, I welcome the decision to allow the VECs to become primary school patrons.