Thursday, 11 November 2010
Education (Amendment) Bill 2010: Second Stage (Resumed)
When we adjourned this debate yesterday, I was half way through my contribution. The Bill is to be welcomed because, for the first time, vocational education committees, VECs, are to become mainstream in the provision of primary education. There are seven primary education patrons but now the VECs are to comprise an eighth. I welcome this because the VECs represent the only part of education that has a democratic basis and in which directly elected councillors are involved in the delivery of education. VEC education is linked to the local authorities. Councillors from those local authorities are represented on all the VECs nationally. They have an input into what is effectively community education.
VEC education is exclusively at second level at present. It used to cover third level education, including education provided by the institutes of technology. I used to be chairman of Bolton Street and Cathal Brugha Street institutes of education.
The VECs have done a fantastic job, particularly in difficult times, and have been incredibly innovative. They introduced the post-leaving certificate courses and provided flexibility in an otherwise very inflexible second level education system. The VECs widened the boundaries and parameters and increased the flexibility in education. Particularly in times of recession, when graduates find it difficult to get jobs, there is a tremendous number of courses available in VECs nationally, which courses have both an educational and training element. The courses are provided very cheaply and are fantastically beneficial.
Very recently we noted that graduates of the Ballyfermot post-leaving certificate course in animation received Oscars in Hollywood. Those concerned developed this initiative from scratch and linked up with Disney and some other providers and now comprise one of the mainstream providers of animation, not just for education but also for film.
I hate to see the Government proposing to impose a €500 fee for post-leaving certificate courses. This would be very regressive. Every encouragement should be afforded to those who wish to remain in education but who do not want to attend mainstream third level institutions and to those claiming the jobseeker's allowance. Such courses increase one's chances of obtaining a job. Training is of benefit in terms of obtaining apprenticeships.
The VECs have proved to be a very effective mechanism within the parameters in which they have been allowed to operate. There is no reason they should not be part and parcel of the primary education system. However, as I stated, I am not happy with any system of education that develops on an ad hoc basis. The VECs are to participate in primary level education not specifically because they wanted to or because somebody decided it was desirable but because other patrons were not providing the services required. They have been interested in education for a long time but have not been allowed into the system. There is an ad hoc approach at present. When considering patronage in the primary system, one needs to look right across the board. One must consider the effectiveness of the existing patrons and how the new and old systems can be integrated.
It will be quite difficult for the VECs to have an effective input. While they will have the right to establish and maintain schools and to be patrons thereof, their involvement is being limited very strongly in the legislation. The schools already run by VECs have democratic involvement in that councillors are on the boards of all the schools. By and large, councillors are chairmen of the boards of all the schools at second level. However, under the legislation, there is no provision for this system to continue.
With the halving of the number of VECs, from 33 to 16, certain areas and counties will have no VEC provision at all. It will be difficult to find people. Will other members of the committees be nominated? Will the VEC simply appoint its two representatives? Will it be able to appoint the teachers' representatives or community representatives?
The legislation must clarify, in a much better way, how the VECs are going to operate as patrons. It must indicate who will be the members of boards of management and how the latter will operate. It must also indicate from where the chairpersons will come. What is proposed is completely at odds with how the VECs operate at present. This is an ad hoc mechanism and I would like the matter to be dealt with, through consultation, in a much more effective fashion.
What is proposed in respect of the employment of unregistered and unqualified teachers represents a mistake. As with other items of legislation, the provision in this regard appears to be an afterthought. Section 12 - the final section in the Bill - provides for the amendment of section 30 of the Teaching Council Act 2001 to allow for the employment, in certain exceptional and limited circumstances, of persons who are not registered teachers under the Act. Someone, either inside or outside the Department, suggested the inclusion of this section. I do not know from where it came but it is not an integral part of the legislation. Last year, some 50,000 unqualified teachers were used in the primary education system. The inclusion of section 12 means that the employment of such teachers will be placed on a statutory basis. In other words, the Tánaiste is encouraging the use of unqualified and unregistered teachers. That is not good enough, particularly in the current climate.
Many teachers are unemployed and are very anxious to obtain employment. By placing the employment of unqualified and unregistered teachers on a statutory footing - not just in emergency circumstances - the Tánaiste s delivering a kick in the teeth to those who put themselves through third level, obtained their qualifications, underwent training, etc. If what I have outlined comes to pass, much greater numbers of unqualified individuals will be employed in our schools.
I ask the Tánaiste - even at this late stage - to reconsider the position because what is proposed is unsatisfactory. The INTO is up in arms in respect of this matter. The latter lobbied strongly in respect of the establishment of the Teaching Council and worked hard to ensure that the qualifications obtained by those in the teaching profession are as good, if not better, than those which can be obtained anywhere else in the world. Teachers in this country possess very good professional qualifications and receive great training. However, the Tánaiste is now making statutory provision to allow those who do not possess such qualifications to teach in our schools. That is a contradiction in terms and what is proposed cannot be allowed to happen. It is strange that the Tánaiste will not make provision in respect of the large numbers of are unemployed and who are desperately seeking work. What I have outlined represents the sting in the tail of the legislation.
On Tuesday night last, I visited a gaelscoil in Cabra which has been operating out of prefabs for the past 15 years. The meeting I attended was held in one of the prefabs, which was very smelly and damp. The classrooms in this school are too hot in summer and too cold, wet and damp in winter. That has been the position for 15 years. An entire generation of children has gone through the school and has moved on through second and third level. These individuals are now in employment. The Government has not seen fit to confer permanent status on the school, which has been viable from the outset. This is despite the fact that the previous Taoiseach was in power for much of the period.
There are encouraging signs that this matter may soon be resolved. It has been stated that this matter had fallen through the floorboards and the Department of Education and Skills admitted that the application relating to the school went missing for four years. There is a fault there somewhere. It is going to be difficult to proceed to build the school on the current site.
What is needed in respect of the provision of schools is the putting in place of a programme under which permanent status will be granted to all of those schools which do not possess and which are housed in prefabs. Deputy Quinn has argued strongly in favour of this on numerous occasions. There is a need for parents, boards of management, staff, etc., to be involved in the design of new school buildings in order that the latter might be used, outside the course of the normal school day, for other purposes by communities. This did not happen in the past. This is because the Department seems to use particular templates in respect of the design and construction of new schools.
I welcome the Bill to some extent. However, I believe it to be flawed. The Tánaiste will be obliged to introduce a considerable number of amendments on Committee Stage before it can be considered viable.
I wish to share time with Deputy Connaughton.
This Bill represents a missed opportunity. I wish to take up the point Deputy Costello made at length in respect of the provisions which will enable unqualified teachers to be paid out of the public purse. However, I will first comment on the real missed opportunity to which I refer, namely, the opportunity of encouraging greater democracy in the area of education. This is the Bill's great weakness.
Section 30 of the Teaching Council Act 2001 refers to the employment of a registered teacher and states:
A person who is employed as a teacher in a recognised school but---
(a) is not a registered teacher, or
(b) is removed or suspended from the register under Part 5,
shall not be remunerated by the school in respect of his or her employment out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas.
Section 12 of the Bill enables unqualified teachers to be paid out of the public purse, which is absurd. What is proposed clearly highlights the fact that the Government is out of touch. Anyone with experience of the education system will be aware that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of qualified teachers who are either being forced to emigrate or being obliged to scamper around the country - from Malin Head to Mizen Head and from Donegal to Dublin and on to Cork - in search of a week's teaching work here and there. These people are posting thousands of CVs to every school in the country. However, it is proposed in the Bill that the provisions of the Teaching Council Act 2001 be repealed in order that schools will be able to pay unqualified staff out of the public purse.
I accept that such staff will only be employed in certain circumstances and that schools will be required to furnish evidence to the Minister for Education and Skills that they have been unable to employ registered teachers. Are we expected to believe that when, at 7.30 a.m. on a Monday, the principal of a school in Macroom, County Cork, receives a telephone call from a member of staff indicating that he or she is sick and will not be able to attend for work, that said principal will, in turn, be obliged to telephone the Minister to seek permission to employ an unqualified teacher for the day?
The Bill offered a real opportunity to involve VECs in a democratic system by means of establishing a regional structure. Under such a structure, a centre could be put in place which schools requiring staff on a temporary basis - perhaps for one, two or three days - could contact. Are we expected to believe that the principal of a school is going to telephone the Department of Education and Skills on the morning on which an emergency arises-----
-----and inquire whether - as a result of the fact that he or she cannot get a qualified teacher at short notice - he or she can call on the services of a retired teacher who worked in the school the previous year or whether he or she can employ the latter's son or daughter? That is absurd and it is a real betrayal of the investment the State and taxpayers have made in training qualified teachers. Those to whom I refer are desperate to find work in order that they might get on the first step of the ladder towards obtaining a permanent teaching post. These individuals are obliged to take a day's work here, there or anywhere they can get it throughout the country. That is also absurd and is sufficient reason for the House to reject the Bill.
There was a real opportunity in this Bill for greater democracy in education. If we were starting out with a blank sheet of paper today what system would the Minister of State put in place to serve the educational needs of the country? It would not necessarily be the VEC system but it has one cornerstone which is critical to education and is missing in a lot of other areas of the education system and the service that is delivered, that is, democracy. There should be a democratic education system which is not beholden to parents, patrons or teachers but which is accountable democratically.
There was a real opportunity to deal with many of the ills of education in this Bill and put in place a real democratic structure which would provide for diversity in education and be accountable. It would deal with the kind of issue to which I referred. Something sneaked in under the carpet to facilitate paying, from the public purse, unqualified and retired teachers in receipt of a pension who are taking jobs from young people who are signing on. It is absurd and I ask the Minister of State to go back to the drawing board, withdraw the section and provide a regional structure whereby teachers can be contacted on Monday or Tuesday morning at an early hour to inform them that a teacher is needed in Clondrohid national school or wherever else and that service can be delivered locally.