Dáil debates

Thursday, 28 January 2010

2:00 pm

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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Question 4: To ask the Minister for Education and Science when he will respond to a request from Educate Together for recognition as a patron for post-primary education provision here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4315/10]

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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My Department is examining a range of issues relating to patronage at second level, including the issue of an independent process for the recognition of new patrons. Given the current trend of an increasing student population and the need to ensure maximum benefit from the financial resources available to me, my Department is considering a number of broad policy issues relating to the recognition process for second level schools. These broad policy issues are not confined to the current applications from Educate Together but relate to how we deal with the establishment of new schools across the entire second level sector. The application from Educate Together to be recognised as a patron body at second level is being examined within the context of the relevant legal, financial and other factors.

It is important to bear in mind that the establishment of any new post-primary school involves a very substantial investment by the State in terms of the initial capital costs, including the acquisition of land and also the subsequent operational costs of the school. Before any new post-primary school can be established, regardless of the patronage model envisaged, my Department must be satisfied that the long-term enrolment potential of any such school justifies the level of investment. New post-primary schools must be capable of catering for as broad a spectrum as possible of the community they are intended to serve in order to be viable and to provide the wide curricular range rightly demanded by parents in modern times. As a consequence, all factors must be carefully considered, including the implications for enrolment patterns at existing schools, before approval can be given to further expand the present range of post-primary patron models.

At a meeting last year between officials from my Department and representatives from Educate Together, there was a wide-ranging and constructive discussion about the issues associated with Educate Together's application to become a patron at second level. The discussion also focused on the blueprint for post-primary education published by Educate Together in June of last year. This blueprint outlines the approach by Educate Together to providing an inclusive education where all young people, whatever their ability, will be provided with learning opportunities and classroom practices that explicitly take account of the different ways students learn.

In view of the range of issues involved, it has not been possible to bring this matter to a conclusion as quickly as I would have liked. However, it is my intention to finalise this matter and convey a decision to Educate Together at an early date.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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I am absolutely dumbstruck by that. This is great stuff. One of the Minister's senior officials told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science before Christmas that the matter would be sorted out within weeks given that this application is now more than two years old. In reply to Deputy Quinn on 22 April last year, the Minister stated that the examination of the recognition process for patrons at second level would be finalised before the start of the next school year and that his Department would be in contact with Educate Together when that had been completed.

Why can the Minister not tell it whether it will be recognised as a patron for post-primary education given the fact this organisation, as I am sure he will admit, is already a well-recognised patron in primary education? Why is it taking the Department more than two years to come to a view on this matter given the status and standing of this organisation?

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I agree with the Deputy that Educate Together does a very fine job as patron of primary schools. It is not a simple matter to give new patronage at second level. There are serious issues, including legal issues. I had to consult the Attorney General because we need to look at the Education Act 1998 and the Constitution and the effects thereon. These legal issues relate not only to the application from Educate Together but would arise in the case of any proposed new patron or body.

The development of a framework under which all proposed new schools would be assessed will need to have a sound basis and underpinning. There is no provision in the Education Act 1998 for a new patron or for the recognition of a new patron. Under the 1998 Act, there is a provision for the provision of a new school.

There are legal implications. We have had consultations on the matter. We are, more or less, at the end of the process. I will bring this to Government because it is a fundamental equality issue on which the Government will have to sign off.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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It is my understanding that this is the first time this legal issue has been raised. Up to this point, the Minister has never raised the question of the legal status of Educate Together as a patron in post-primary education. When the Minister refers to the Education Act 1998, is he referring to section 10?

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I think so.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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I think the Minister is. Section 10 gives the Minister the right to recognise patrons which in this case is an existing patron. There is considerable legal opinion to the effect that it does not have to go through all the hoops again to be recognised given that it is already recognised in the primary school sector.

This is a very important intervention by the Minister because the legal question has never been raised before. If he is now putting this on the table, one can only come to the conclusion that this matter will be long-fingered once again.

The Minister said in his reply that he will speak to Educate Together about this soon. Will he give a timeframe given that his assistant secretary, Mr. Wyse, mentioned weeks at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science? Is the Minister holding this back or are there other elements in his Department doing so? 4 o'clock

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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Educate Together is held in very high esteem in my Department. We take its applications very seriously and we know if it is appointed as a patron it will do an exceptionally good job. I have a role as Minister for Education and Science to make sure that whatever I put in place has a legal basis and a sound framework. I also have to examine any new patron, the school it intends to develop and the impact that school will have on other schools. I have to establish the cost of the various associated costs with the establishment of the school and its long-term viability. All of these issues have now been considered. The legal aspects have been considered and I hope to be in a position to bring it to Cabinet shortly.