Dáil debates

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

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


6:00 pm

Photo of Mary WallaceMary Wallace (Meath East, Fianna Fail)

The Bill before the House will pave the way for VEC involvement in primary education, thereby creating a welcome community national school model. As someone who lives in the fastest growing area in the country, where we seem to spend all our lives being involved in the building of new schools, I am particularly interested in such a model. We were quite shocked in our parish when the bishop advised us that he would not be involved in the patronage of the next primary school, as he believed that the management of four primary schools in our parish was sufficient and if a fifth primary school was required, the patron should come from elsewhere. At the time we wondered where it would go from there as we were conscious of the great work done by the Catholic Church in the management of our schools and that the Catholic Church manages 90% of the primary school sector. We were also conscious that the State did not have an alternative system of school patronage of its own, although we were aware of the pilot scheme that had commenced in the Dublin area and that, some day, it would be necessary to bring forward the legislation to underpin this community national school model. This is the legislation we are debating.

Five schools operating under the pilot community national school model in counties Dublin, Meath and Kildare have opened in the past few years and it is also important that these schools are underpinned by legislation. I commend the Minister and the Department of Education and Skills for bringing forward the Bill, as it is necessary to address the issue where the current system could not require a patron to establish a school and where there was no mechanism for the establishment of a school if there was demand for it in a particular location.

The existing system supports the establishment of many schools by An Foras Pátrúnachta, Educate Together and others. The Educate Together movement has established 58 schools and 138 gaelscoileanna under Foras Pátrúnachta are also in place throughout the country. It is essential this new community national school model complements other models rather than replaces them. The VEC has proved itself to be hugely successful at secondary level and, as a result, there is no reason for the State not to become involved at primary level.

The Bill also provides that boards of management of schools under the new patronage model will operate in the same way as those in primary schools generally rather than under the governance model used in post-primary VEC schools. The board of management of a school established under this legislation will not be a sub-committee of a VEC, as is the case for post-primary VEC schools. Most important, this means that teaching and non-teaching staff will be employed by the board of management in the same way as other primary schools and the board will receive capitation and other funding directly from the Department. I am relieved about this, as I am not sure about the existing system at post-primary level where teachers move from one school to another within the scheme. Perhaps the Minister might clarify in her response that this will not apply at primary school level. In other words, as I understand it from the Minister's explanation, staff at primary school level in the community national school model will be employed directly by the board of management and, therefore, the movement of teachers between schools that applies at post-primary level within the system will not apply at primary level in the new community national school model.

I also want to raise the issue of gaelscoileanna. While I am delighted with the new community national school model, I continue to have the same concern I had last May during the debate in the House regarding patronage when I expressed concern that no new gaelscoil had opened in the past three years. We have to address this issue. I referred earlier to the decision by the Catholic Church not to be a patron of the fifth school in my parish if it was required. At the time, based on the pupil-teacher ratio of 25:1, it appeared that a fifth school might be required. The view locally following the bishop's decision was that the provision of a gaelscoil would be a good option should the demographic need require a fifth school. In the meantime, the pupil-teacher ratio changed to 28:1 and the existing eight junior infant classes were able to take three extra pupils each catering or an additional 24 five-year olds, thus meaning that the existing schools could cater for the five-year olds presenting for education.

However, a gaelscoil had commenced without recognition and nine pupils attended the new school. The Department advises that it is not possible to give recognition to this school while there are vacant places in the existing schools. In the current financial climate, it is difficult to see the taxpayer providing a new school against the demographic need and I understand that. However, it is also understandable that the gaelscoil movement has concerns that no gaelscoil has been approved throughout the country over the past three years. Has there been an application for a gaelscoil during that time in any part of the country where there was a demographic need for a new school? The Minister and her Department are not militating against gaelscoileanna but it is important that this matter be clarified. The sense I have about this issue is that the Department does not oppose gaelscoileanna and its issue is the demographic need. If so, there is a need to clarify that no application for a gaelscoil has been made where there was a demographic need. I want to give the Department and the Minister an opportunity to demonstrate their bona fides on this issue. That is the concern of the gaelscoileanna movement because it has not received approval for a school over the past three years. While we continue to discuss the demographic need issue with its representatives locally, it needs to be clarified.

Last month, I tabled a parliamentary question in which I asked the Minister the reason Gaelscoil Rath Tó was initially denied recognition when the VEC was named as its patron, yet the newly opened primary school in Navan under the patronage of the same VEC has been granted full recognition. I was informed by her that while the initial application to establish Gaelscoil Rath Tó was submitted to the Department, the position was the VECs did not have the legal right to act as patron in the primary sector at the time. The community national school in Navan was established under the interim patronage of the Minister while this Bill was being prepared. She also pointed out that, while the Commission on School Accommodation is reviewing the procedures for the establishment of new primary schools, no new schools will be established unless needed for demographic growth reasons. Along with the review of the Commission on School Accommodation, the legislation before us is just one of several measures being progressed by the Government to cater for changes in our education system.

There have been numerous developments in recent years in widening the number of school patrons together with developments in areas of population growth such as the area I represent. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin indicated that the church was willing to release schools from its patronage where there is demand for such a change. It is important, as previous speakers said, that there is full consultation with the patron, the management of the school and staff before a decision is taken on handing over patronage from the Catholic Church. We must listen to the views of the communities involved and whether they feel there is a demand for a new patron and where demand exists, the legislation provides another option for such communities. I am fully supportive of the VEC model. The VEC has a proven track record following the two-year long pilot community national school model.

Over the past several years, it is apparent that this country's population has increased, particularly in my area, but, more important, it has also grown in diversity. This mean we not only require more schools but also a different schooling system to coincide with this new, diverse and continually growing demographic. After the announcement that the bishop's patronage of many primary schools would come to an end, many of us were concerned about who would step in and continue the excellent path that the Catholic Church had forged in the primary school system.

Thankfully, we found a solution that has proven successful, yet, at the same time, that is a fresh approach to primary education. The VEC has made an important contribution to the education system at secondary level. The system is well placed to accommodate primary school students. One of the main reasons the VEC method is such an effective option for education is it reaches out to a variety of parents and students. It maintains the educational standards that the Catholic Church has set and, equally, it recognises the wishes of parents to have their children receive faith-based education as part of the curriculum. Since our population will most likely continue with its diversification process, the VEC is an excellent way to ensure that a majority of the population receives the education it both needs and desires.

The VEC is a willing patron to pick up where the Catholic Church left off but as a State model of education. The VEC is not attempting to replace any of the flourishing primary schools that have been established, rather it is attempting to work alongside those schools as a workable option for primary education.

Based on my experience in this area, I am delighted this legislation is going through the House at this time. I wish the VEC system every success with the new community national school model and I wish the Minister and the Department every success with its implementation.


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