Dáil debates

Thursday, 14 October 2010

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


Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".

3:00 pm

Photo of Séamus KirkSéamus Kirk (Ceann Comhairle; Louth, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Crawford is in possession and there are 17 minutes remaining in this time slot.

Photo of Seymour CrawfordSeymour Crawford (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to continue my contribution on this Bill. When I last spoke on it I raised the question of schools being in the control of the Government. One such school is the model school in Monaghan. I made the point that although it is under the patronage of the Minister for Education and Science, it has been left untouched for many years, although promises were made to restructure and extend it. I thank the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Science for having given a promising commitment in respect of the work required in recent months and hopefully it will be seen to. I make that point in passing because we are talking about primary schools being taken into the VEC structure. The solution to issues is not always the simplest answer that can be given. It is important to have independent committees in charge and for them to make sure that schools are maintained and run properly. The model school in Monaghan is one of only a few in the country. It is hard to justify to its current chairman, the Reverend Ian Berry, and committee why the school has been left so long without the required work being done.

To return to the VEC model, the Minster made the point in her contribution that the VECs are local. That is the specific point she made. She said: "I believe that it is both appropriate and important that the State, through local VECs, should be in a position to participate in primary education provision in order to provide an alternative patronage model at this level". That is at a time when the Minister is proposing that the local element of the VECs would be removed, that no longer would the model operate on a county structure and that the number of VECs would be reduced from 33 to 16. The stated reason for doing this is to minimise costs. When that decision is examined in the context of the Croke Park agreement, it is important to bear in mind that if one tries to cut the salaries of CEOs in light of the fact that the number of VECs will be reduced from 33 to 16, one will find that redundancies cannot be given under that agreement. There is a mix up here which needs to be quickly clarified, otherwise many VECs will find themselves in cloud cuckoo land.

We were given a commitment some years ago that by withdrawing the local structures in the health service we would have a fantastic structure called the HSE and that it would result in fairer play for everybody and that everything would be grand. We know especially in terms of services in Cavan-Monaghan, as does the Ceann Comhairle in terms of services in counties Louth and Meath, that what we were told has not been the result. The new structure has had a desperate impact. My colleagues in the Fianna Fáil Party are claiming responsibility for working to get services re-opened in Monaghan General Hospital whereas they refused to back those of us who were fighting for this only nine or ten months ago. We need to be careful that the changes being made to the restructuring of VECs are for the right reasons and that they are being done to save costs. If we remove the local political responsibility from these bodies, we will weaken the involvement of elected members.

As I said during the debate yesterday, we have a fantastic chief executive officer in County Monaghan VEC, Mr. Martin O'Brien, who has revolutionised this area. He is a far-seeing, ambitious, hard-working individual who is changing the attitude towards the VEC in Monaghan, but it is sad that at this time the VEC in Monaghan will be linked with the VEC in Cavan. Unfortunately, our experience in Monaghan, despite the fact that Monaghan has four TDs with only one in Cavan, is that everything seems to be located in Cavan. The hospital services are now in Cavan and the Teagasc offices have moved to Cavan, while the Teagasc offices in Monaghan are up for sale. Services in Monaghan are not getting any better.

I met a senior officer in Teagasc recently who told me there is no real problem and that the officers in Teagasc can do all the work through e-mail and text. Successful business people do not rely on e-mail or text. They board planes and travel to meet the people in industry. If we are to run proper businesses we must do the same, be it at Teagasc or VEC level or anything else.

Another issue I am concerned about, which is linked to the health services, is the idea that responsibility for some of the services now provided by the Department of Education and Skills would move to the Department of Health and Children. I worked for years to get a special language class open in Monaghan. That service, and services for the disadvantaged in general, are extremely important.

I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to the position before it is too late. If we move these systems into an uncontrolled, out of touch Health Service Executive-type body that is only interested in keeping the high level structures in place and not the front-line services, we will have a serious problem. I beg the Minister, as I know other colleagues have done, to re-examine that entire system and ensure the schools have control of services for the disadvantaged and the other areas mentioned in this debate.

The only people who can really understand the problems of a child are the parents and the teacher. They will be the first to see when a problem arises and they should have some say in this respect and have quick access to experts and not have to wait on structures that simply do not deliver.

I want to mention another issue which may not be relevant to the Bill but is extremely important. In some cases where a vacancy arises in a school, retired teachers are being taken back. That is at a time when there are 450,000 people unemployed. Many young teachers cannot get jobs because the first question they are asked is if they have experience. The way they could get experience is for them to fill the vacancies that arise when somebody is on maternity leave, sick leave or for some other reason. I urge the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, where she is paying the bill on our behalf, to insist that young trained teachers are given priority over retired teachers. I do not have anything against retired teachers but we are in an economic disaster and we must make sure that young people are given hope. Hope is something we do not have in this country at present and it is vital we return to a position where we do have hope.

I want to touch on some other areas that are vital, including back to work schemes and so on. I am holding a copy of an e-mail from a young lady in my constituency not far from home who has completed a FETAC level 5 qualification in business and banking but cannot get a job. She applied for a child care job in the local centre in her home village where she lives, which would be very convenient. She was accepted by the centre, which was delighted that someone with such excellent qualifications would join its staff. However, following contact with FÁS, the young lady was told in no uncertain terms that the job was not available because her qualifications were so high. We must get our act together and remove red tape and technical obstacles which prevent people such as this young woman, who has a child and excellent qualifications, from securing employment. The difference between the lone parent payment she receives and her income from the job in question would be minimal. It would benefit the State if she were to take up employment.

This case is only one of many examples. In another case, a young man who applied for a course commencing in September was informed that he was not eligible for the back-to-education allowance because he had been in receipt of social welfare payments for seven and a half months rather than the nine month period required. If we are serious about keeping young people in this country and getting them off social welfare, we must use common sense. These cases are unacceptable to me and many others. While the problems to which I refer may not be relevant to the provisions of the Bill, they are relevant to those affected, which is the reason I raise them.

The decision to allow vocational education committees to assume patronage of primary schools does not have major relevance or cause problems for my constituents in Cavan-Monaghan. Over the years, denominational schools from both sides of the religious divide have given great service in the constituency. I understand the Catholic Church, in particular, wishes to end its involvement in certain schools in some areas. I accept the church's position in this regard and do not have a problem supporting the Bill.

We must recognise the extremely valuable work done by church bodies, notwithstanding the criticism levelled at them. In many cases, Catholic religious orders gave their services for free. Without their involvement in education, many people would have been much worse off. Times have changed, however, and many of those living in new areas of housing want to have their children educated in non-denominational schools. The vocational education committees have a major role to play in this regard.

In my constituency, the community school in Clones is operated jointly by the Catholic Church and County Monaghan VEC and the arrangement is working extremely well. The constituency also has the Bailieborough community school, a comprehensive school in Cootehill, four excellent VEC schools in County Cavan and five such schools in County Monaghan. The Monaghan Institute of Further Education and Training also provides a tremendous service to young people in Monaghan, as does the college in Cavan.

This year, thousands of those who applied to enrol in these colleges were unable to secure a place because the post-leaving certificate courses were unable to cope with demand. I ask the Minister to examine this issue. Many thousands of primary and secondary level teachers are unable to find employment. We must find a way to enrol additional students in third level colleges to enable them to continue their education rather than having them on social welfare, which is a dead end.

I ask the Minister to reconsider the position. From speaking to Mr. Martin O'Brien, the CEO of County Monaghan VEC, and staff in Cavan I know the colleges have sufficient space available to accommodate additional students if they received approval to employ the personnel required to teach them. If we are serious about educating young people to third level, such approval would make a good start at the lowest possible cost. In addition, young people would be able to continue to live at home while benefiting from further education.

Photo of Peter KellyPeter Kelly (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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The Education (Amendment) Bill will pave the way for the involvement of vocational education committees in primary education, create a welcome community national school model and make a number of other notable changes to the Education and Teaching Council Acts. The Bill provides for a legislative framework to allow VECs to become involved in the provision of primary education.

As the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills stated when she published the Bill, the changing shape of our society in recent years has placed new demands on our education system to become more diverse. Government policy in recent years has been to provide for a plurality of patronage in our education system. Our system of patronage to date has shown it has the capacity to change. It has already supported the establishment of schools by An Foras Pátrúnachta and Educate Together. Since 1997, 170 new schools have opened. While 29 of them were catholic schools, the majority were opened onto an alternative system of patronage under Educate Together and An Foras Pátrúnachta.

The Educate Together movement has established many schools and now has 56 schools, of which two opened in September. Furthermore, two schools under a pilot community national school model opened in Dublin in 2008 and a further three opened in September this year in counties Dublin, Kildare and Meath. As well as diversity by type of religion or ethos, the number of Gaelscoileanna is also increasing, with 138 such schools in place. While the Catholic Church still controls 90% of schools in the primary school sector, progress clearly has been made in providing greater choice for parents.

I welcome the VEC community national school model. The VECs have already proved themselves to be extremely successful at secondary level and there is no reason the State should not become involved at primary level and achieve the same success. This new model will welcome and respect children of all faiths and can only benefit local communities. However, it must not replace existing models of patronage but instead complement other patrons.

The Bill also provides that boards of management of schools under the new patronage model will operate in the same way as boards of management in primary schools generally, rather than on 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. This means that teaching and non-teaching staff will be employed by the board of management in the same way as in other primary schools and the board will receive capitation and other funding directly from the Department.

One of the most controversial elements in the Bill and one on which I have received a number of queries is the section that proposes to amend section 30 of the Teaching Council Act 2001. The Bill provides for the employment in certain exceptional and limited circumstances of persons who are not registered teachers, following consultations with management, unions and the Teaching Council. According to the Tánaiste, it is not always possible for students to engage a registered, qualified teacher due to many factors. As she explained in her speech to the Dáil yesterday, this amendment will allow the Minister to regulate in a measured way the use of unregistered teachers in exceptional and limited circumstances where their use may be necessary. To date, the use of unqualified personnel has been unregulated and this amendment to the Teaching Council Act seeks to amend the position. While I welcome the Tánaiste's explanation in this regard, I believe this issue must be debated further as it has caused much confusion for qualified and registered teachers who are unemployed at present.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Loath as I am to interrupt the Deputy, I ask him to move the adjournment of the debate.

Photo of Peter KellyPeter Kelly (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I ask for further debate on this issue as I wish to re-examine it. There is no need for non-registered teachers at present due to the number of registered teachers who are out of work. The timing is wrong.