Thursday, 28 January 2010
My Department is considering a number of broad policy issues relating to the recognition process for second level schools. The application from Educate Together to be recognised as a patron body at second level is being fully examined within the context of the relevant legal, financial and other factors.
At a meeting last year involving officials from my Department and representatives from Educate Together, a wide-ranging and constructive discussion relating to the issues associated with Educate Together's application to become a patron at second level took place. 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.
Why have legal issues arisen in respect of Educate Together becoming a patron at post-primary level when they did not arise in the context of primary level? Does the Minister accept that Educate Together schools provide a unique and high quality form of education? Everyone is of the view that there is a difficulty with Educate Together becoming a patron at second level. The question arises as to whether the Minister or someone within his Department is trying to prevent Educate Together's progress in this regard.
As Minister, I want to be in a position to ensure that if we make provision for something, it will stand up to scrutiny and that the legal framework relating to it is correct. Through my officials, I established that the Education Act does not contain a provision with regard to establishing a new model of patronage at second level. We were, therefore, obliged to consult the Office of the Attorney General to discover how we might put in place a proper legal framework. The latter has now been put in place.
The position relating to second level is much different from that which obtains in respect of primary level. In the first instance, it is much more expensive to procure a site, much more land is required and the cost of building a school is high.
It is then necessary to ensure the various curricular activities are provided. It is also necessary to consider what will be the impact of the opening of a new school on existing schools in an area and whether the former will be viable in the long term. We are obliged to consider all these issues.
I made it clear, in my reply to a previous question, that we will shortly be making a decision on this matter. I also indicated that I will be bringing the matter before Cabinet soon because I am of the view that the Government should make a policy decision on establishing a new model of patronage at second level.
The emergence of a legal problem has come as a great surprise to people outside the Department of Education and Science. Educate Together did a great deal of work in respect of removing impediments to recognition and with regard to having its existing patronage extended. Is the Minister prepared to publish the legal advice he received in respect of the impediments and difficulties that exist in order that we might be of assistance in resolving this problem? I do not believe he is opposed to Educate Together becoming a patron at second level. However, a barrier exists somewhere. For as long as that barrier remains secret, obscure or incapable of being explained, all sorts of suspicions will be bandied about in respect of the Minister and his stewardship of the Department.
Two issues arise. First, it became clear that there was no provision in the Education Act in respect of establishing a new model of patronage. In such circumstances, I was obliged to ask my officials, in conjunction with the Attorney General, to consider the position in order that we might overcome that difficulty. The provision contained in the Act related to the provision of new schools rather than developing new models of patronage.
The second issue is that surrounding the making available of legal advice. Deputy Quinn has served as Minister for Finance and he is aware that it is not normal practice to make the advice of the Attorney General publicly available.
Section 10 of the Act imposes an obligation on the Minister for Education and Science to provide parents with a variety of options in respect of their children's education. That is his constitutional and legal responsibility. This issue does not merely relate to Educate Together. There is a view among many of the partners involved in post-primary education that any new post-primary school established is ostensibly a VEC. There are many Catholic and Church of Ireland education providers who ask why they cannot provide post-primary schools in emerging areas.
The Minister's assertion that legal advice has been sought in respect of this issue is new. I was of the view that the Education Act makes it clear that patronage is there for all to see. This is especially true of Educate Together which has already established its patronage.
One of the criteria to which the Minister referred is the fact that any new patron would be obliged to cater for a broad spectrum of individuals from the communities it intends to serve. Does he accept that Educate Together is probably to the fore in catering for the needs of the broadest possible spectrum of such individuals?
I accept that Educate Together is very expansive in the context of what it does. I am of the view, however, that the other patrons are equally expansive and forward-looking. Therefore, I tend to place them all on the same footing.
If another organisation had sought to be established as a patron at second level, I would still have had to consider the legal framework - a process I have now completed - in the same way I was obliged to do in respect of Educate Together. The legal framework has been examined and our work in respect of it is complete. It is just a matter of my bringing the matter before Cabinet.