Dáil debates

Thursday, 5 November 2020

Education (Admission to Schools) (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage [Private Members]


5:20 pm

Duncan Smith (Dublin Fingal, Labour)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I will be sharing time with Deputy Ó Ríordáin if he arrives in time, or I would appreciate it if the Ceann Comhairle would put him on the slate for contributions. The Labour Party has presented this short, simple Bill which we believe to be very important. We are disappointed that the Government has chosen to submit an amendment to further consider it because that will kick it down the road for 12 months. We do not see a need for that. We feel that is a device that has crept into how the Government is reacting to good, well thought out Bills. This legislation has been designed to attack and change something that is at the very heart of Irish society, that is, the issue of privilege as it relates to education.

As the Minister is aware, the Education Act 1998 provides that 25% of places for any given year can be held for the children and grandchildren of past pupils of a particular school. I deal with a number of schools in my own constituency, including community schools, Educate Together schools and Gaelscoileanna. This admissions policy is never used by those schools but is used predominantly by fee-paying schools. It is about intergenerational privilege and about passing down the school tie and crest. The knock-on effect of this policy when it is applied in a school in Dublin, for example, is that people who move to Dublin from anywhere else in the country, or from another country, are automatically at a disadvantage if they would like to send their children to such a school.

This is something that needs to change and should change. We feel that such a change would have broad support. We hope it will have broad support across the House. This kind of privilege and elitism needs to be tackled anywhere we find it. We spent the majority of this week dealing with issues of privilege and access. I refer to the discussion about the Tánaiste and GPs, which came up today on Leaders' Questions. Privilege was at the very heart of that debate. When it comes to our schooling and education system, and I am not an expert on this, we know that there is privilege within it. This Bill, as short and succinct as it is, goes a long way in tackling that.

In proposing this legislation, the Labour Party is asking the Minister to withdraw her amendment and to allow the Bill to advance to Committee Stage. The Minister is proposing her amendment on the basis that it will allow the Government to consider the Bill and bring it back in a year. This Bill, like other Bills, can be considered on Committee Stage. Schools will still be able to consider their own admissions policies for next year. We are under no illusions that this Bill will fly through the House. There is nothing flying through the House from the Opposition during this Dáil. We are all aware of that. I ask the Minister to allow this Bill to go through, to be put in the queue, to proceed to Committee Stage, to be thrashed out by the education spokespersons at the Select Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and to go through due process. I ask her not to continue this new Government device of kicking things nine or 12 months down the road. This will create backlogs that the Government will not be able to clear and will make for bad Parliament, substandard procedure and poor legislation. I will be interested to hear the thoughts of the other spokespersons in the House and of the Minister.

5:30 pm

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following:
"Dáil Éireann resolves that the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2020 be deemed to be read a second time this day 12 months to allow for a review of the impact of the provision of section 62(10)(b) of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 to be undertaken and for that then to be taken into account in the consideration of this Bill."

I fully appreciate the intentions of Deputies Duncan Smith and Ó Ríordáin in bringing forward this Bill. I do not dispute that they mean well. However, the timing of this Bill would have serious unintended consequences for schools that are currently undertaking their admission processes for the 2021-22 school year under the existing legislation.

As the House is aware, the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 was signed into law on 18 July 2018. The overall objective of the Act is to provide a new framework for school enrolment that is designed to ensure that every child is catered for and that the way in which schools decide on applications for admission is transparent. The measures provided for in the Act make the admissions process transparent and consistent for all. The Act creates confidence for parents that the admission criteria laid down by schools and the procedures used by them are visible and legitimate.

The 2018 Act is part of a suite of measures that seek to take greater account of the needs of parents and students in the school system. It provides for schools to state explicitly in their admission policies that they will not discriminate against an applicant for admission on the grounds of disability, special educational needs, sexual orientation, family status, membership of the Traveller community, race, civil status, gender or religion, while including provision for single-sex schools and denominational schools to reflect in their admission policies the exemptions applicable to such schools under equality legislation. The 2018 Act also sets out certain criteria that schools cannot take into account when deciding on an application for admission or considering an offer of a place, such as consideration of a student's academic ability, skills or aptitude, or consideration of a parent's occupation, financial status, academic ability, skills or aptitude, apart from exceptions provided by the Act.

On 14 January 2020, certain sections of the Act were commenced in order to be operational in time for the admission processes for the 2021-22 school year. From February 2020, all recognised schools in Ireland were required to draft a new school admission policy in accordance with the Act's requirements. The Act was commenced earlier this year to allow sufficient time for consultation with the patron, the staff of the school and the parents of the children attending the school, as required by the Act. The new admission policies which have been approved by patrons are now published on individual school websites. These policies will apply for admission to school for September 2021 and onwards.

Schools have worked extremely hard to develop, consult on and draft these new policies. The Act requires that any subsequent changes to a school's admission policy requires the consultation and patron approval process to be undertaken once again before the policy can be published by the school. Given that schools have just completed this process for admission to school next September, any changes required midstream would be hugely disruptive to schools, particularly at a time when they are contending with the current Covid-19 challenges.

This Bill proposes to delete section 62(10)(b) of the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018, which allows schools if they so desire - and this is an important consideration - to take into account a student's connection to a school by virtue of a parent or grandparent having previously attended the school when deciding on an application for admission to that school. This is subject to a limit of 25% on the number of available places that can be filled by a school using this criterion. Schools continue to have discretion in their admission criteria and how they are applied, as long as they are non-discriminatory and transparent.

There is no evidence available at this time that indicates that the provision the Bill before the House is proposing to delete is subject to widespread use, or indeed that any difficulties are posed for those seeking admission to schools where it is in use. Schools that are not oversubscribed must accept all applicants.

Rather than opposing this Bill outright, the amendment I am proposing allows time to review the use of these admission criteria by schools in order that an informed and considered view of this proposed legislation can be formed, based on our knowledge of the use of these criteria and their impact, if any, on school admissions.

Importantly, the approach I am proposing avoids disrupting and delaying the school admissions processes for 2021-22 which are already under way in schools. I am sure the Deputies will agree with me that schools and school leaders are working tirelessly at this time to lead our school communities through the challenges of Covid-19. This timed amendment avoids unnecessarily adding to the workloads of schools at this time. This is a reasonable approach given the challenges that schools are operating in at present.

Information on how many schools will choose to invoke this 25% provision and its impact or otherwise on school enrolment will only become apparent when it becomes operational in September 2021. This amendment seeks merely to provide for an opportunity to review the use of these admissions criteria in order that an informed view of this proposed legislation can take place. Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire.

5:40 pm

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I will give way to the proposer.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The proposer is going to wrap up and he will have time at that stage.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I am willing to be flexible if that is something the proposer wants.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Fair enough.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I appreciate very much Deputy Ó Laoghaire's accommodation. I appreciate very much the opportunity to propose this Private Members' Bill. It is good that Opposition Members get an opportunity to bring forward legislation on this matter and to engage with the Minister on this basis.

The Labour Party feels very strongly about this Bill. We feel very strongly about education and equality. When one campaigns for equality one is not campaigning because one thinks it is fashionable. One campaigns for equality because one believes in one's Republic. The word, "Republic" is tossed around a lot. People call themselves republicans all over the world. A republic does not mean the absence of a monarchy. A republic means that every child has the same opportunities regardless of who they are or where they are from. Everybody knows that in the past 100 years of this Republic, we have not lived up to that. That does not mean we should not try.

There is no greater thief in Irish society of the Republic than poverty and disadvantage. Poverty steals childhoods. It steals dreams. It steals aspirations. It steals futures. The great liberator from that theft is education. People will ask us and other political parties here why we felt so strongly about school profiling when the leaving certificate controversy was happening. The Minister, in fairness to her, moved on the issue of school profiling because what was in essence at stake was the beautiful anonymity that a young person had of walking into a hall with a student number and nobody knew who they were, the accent they used, their address or who their parents, or grandparents, were.

There is a sense sometimes in Irish society, which may be more powerful than people in this Chamber are willing to admit, of the old school tie. I refer to the question, "What school did you go to?" and the identity, the power and the influence that comes with that. It identifies one as somebody. In some circumstances, that identification lasts for life. For others, it is not that important but how can a school admissions policy be fair to a child whose parents did not go to secondary school - I know people think that is something that happened in the past but it is not true - or somebody whose parents did not go to a secondary school in the locality or in the country when, in an over-subscribed scenario where a school has to choose between that child and another, that the school the child's parents, or even grandparents, went to will come into consideration?

Every time we talk about educational disadvantage or reforming education or look around the world for better standards of education or changing things in Irish education in terms of literacy, equality or standards, we always look to Finland. The difference with Finland is not just about the money they put into education or the resources available to them. It is that they fundamentally believe that equality should underpin their system.

Nobody separates children like the Irish do. We are obsessed with it. We have 4,000 schools in a country the size of the population of Manchester. We separate them by religion, by gender, completely disproportionately in the European context, and by income in certain circumstances. This section of this Act means we can separate on the basis of parents and grandparents. That does violence to the idea of a republic.

I appreciate the Minister's words but it is not good enough to say that there is no evidence that anybody has used this section of the Act and that we do not know if anybody is doing it. If that is the case, why is it in the Act? It is in the Act because of the lobbying of a certain section of the education system. We know this to be true. There are certain vested interests in Irish education, particularly at second level, who want this section in the Act because they want to keep the royal bloodline of succession within their schools. They want to be able to count on the income of the parents, and the grandparents, of past pupils for fundraising. It is as stark as that. They want to keep the identity of their school in Irish society. It is the reportedly old school boy phenomenon, although it is a old school girl phenomenon as well. "What school did you go to? My father went there. My grandfather went there".

If a child's father, mother or grandparents did not go to second level, why should they be at a disadvantage? The system should almost turn itself over to facilitate somebody whose parents or grandparents did not go to second level. Surely a child whose parents are from outside the area, or the country, should be at the top of our priority list in terms of cherishing and lifting that child because that girl or boy lives in a republic. A republic means it does not matter who their parents or grandparents are.

There are many issues we will talk about in these Chambers when it comes to education. There are many issues on which we will agree and disagree. There are many issues we will try to promote. We will have many justifiable arguments but surely, some of the basic things we should agree in this Chamber is that we live in a Republic and we stand by that Republic. It is not just a word. It is an ethos. It is an ethic, and it goes through everything we do. Any section or subsection of any legislative measure that comes into this House should have the litmus test of standing by that Republic.

I know almost exactly what my colleagues are going to say. I know exactly what the Social Democrats and Sinn Féin are going to say. They are going to agree with this Bill. I appreciate the Minister is not coming in here to advocate for it to be voted down in its entirety but I submit to her that it would be in the proper republican tradition of her party, and of this House, for her to re-engage with her Cabinet colleagues to assess again the ethic behind the Bill and what we are trying to achieve and to realise that when it comes to trying to give children equal access it should appal us that there would ever be a legal right for any school to say to one parent over another, "I'm terribly sorry but this parent, and his father, attended this school and on that basis we can turn your child away". They should not have a legal right to do that. The Education (Admission to Schools) Act allows them to do that. The section of that Act should be deleted. The Minister probably agrees with me.

Between now and Wednesday next, when we have the vote, it would be best if we all agreed the section needs to go and if we did not hide behind reviews, as the Minister is suggesting. The word "republic" is oft used and oft abused but it is something that is special and sacred and that we should stand by.

5:50 pm

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Leaving aside the Bill, I want to mention how the Government is dealing with Opposition legislation. As far as I know, not a single Opposition Bill has been accepted without some amendment by the Government. So many good Bills have come before the Dáil since the Government was formed. What is happening speaks to me of an Administration that is not willing to listen to the Opposition, for all it might say otherwise. It is a very common strategy of the Taoiseach to criticise people whom he believes are not working with him or not being constructive but the Government needs to consider how it works with the Opposition when it introduces useful legislation. Its legislation is voted down or, as happens quite frequently, a rider is attached and it is kicked down the road for 12 months or subjected to some process whereby it is never really meant to be seen again. This approach is not unique to the Minister. In fact, the Bill before us is the first education legislation that has come to a vote this session. This is an issue for the Government as whole. What is happening is not good enough. There will be more legislation introduced, again containing good ideas, and I do not want to see it needlessly refused or delayed on the basis of a partisan point of view or, as is evident sometimes, the Government's desire to take credit for all the good things that come through this House. That should not be the way.

We are supporting this legislation. I commend Deputy Ó Ríordáin on summarising this correctly. It is very useful legislation. It is legislation that I would rather were not necessary. It was first proposed as an amendment to the Education (Admission to Schools Act), such as it is, which started out about four years ago. In fairness to the current Minister, she was not involved in it. It is difficult to comprehend why the former Minister, Deputy Bruton, took the attitude he did. There is no logical reason to have a number of places set aside for potential students who had a father, grandfather, mother or grandmother in a school. There are very logical and practical reasons for setting aside places for siblings but there are none for setting aside places based on parents or, much more tenuously, grandparents having attended a school. The former Minister's defence was that in the past there were no limits. Previously, there were no restrictions in any number of ways when it came to school admissions.

School admissions are uncontentious where schools are not oversubscribed but where they are, they are subject to scrutiny. Parents and, indeed, lawyers go through admissions with a fine-tooth comb and places are fought for tooth and nail. That is the reality, particularly in rapidly growing urban areas. It is an unfortunate reality. There are still parts of the State whose rapid demographic growth is such that the Department is struggling to meet demand. Admissions policies make enormous differences. Where there are restrictions of the kind in question, children who live close to or only a few doors from a school that is the natural place for them to attend – it is typically a post-primary school – are kept out by virtue of parents who were former pupils pushing successfully to have their children placed in the school, even though there is no practical reason they should go there and even though they may not live in the community.

Deputy Ó Ríordáin is correct that the old school tie does matter. It matters in this institution; we all know that. There are many backgrounds represented here with connections that do matter. They matter in business and in all walks of life. It is true that people from certain schools have more access and influence and more of a say than others. Sadly, parents decide on the schools their children should go to not only on the basis of the quality of the education there but also, and very often, on the basis of the networks that will be available to the children and the lives they will be set up for by virtue of having attended them. I could name schools, of course, but I am not going to get into that because this is an issue of policy. There is no good reason to have the artificial number set aside. The Minister said she will go away and gather evidence but there was no evidence behind what was done. There was lobbying from the fee-paying school sector to do it. Bhí siad tiomanta don áit a bhí acu sa chóras oideachais a choimeád go daingean agus go dlúth. Bhí siad ag iarraidh a chinntiú go bhfanfaidís sna scoileanna sin, go mbeidís in ann mionlaigh agus daoine ó chúlraí áirithe ar nós an Lucht Siúil a choimeád amach, agus go mbeidís in ann an stádas láidir uachtarach atá acu a choimeád. Níl sé sin ceart ar chor ar bith.

It is also the case, through this and other means, that school admissions policies are used to exclude people from minority backgrounds, particularly ethnic minorities and Travellers. Class is also a consideration. I urge the Minister to reconsider her position ahead of the vote and reconsider the Government’s philosophy on Opposition Bills. It is really not good enough. Many more good policies will come before the House and I hope the current approach will not obtain all the time.

While I have the opportunity, I want to raise two more issues relating to school admissions. School planning areas are an enormous source of frustration. School planning areas were first drawn up in 2008. They are bluntly drawn. They were never subject to public consultation and they are not subject to it now. Most people do not know what they are or the areas the take in. Some of them are extremely large and some are quite small. In many ways, they seem very abstract, considering that they are not publicly advertised. Where a school is located on the periphery of a school planning area, there are very real practical effects. I raised this before with officials in the Department and the former Minister and they said there were no plans to review it. This needs to happen. I can think of three schools in my county, two in my constituency, where people from the adjoining communities are accorded a lower admissions priority because they are just beyond an arbitrary school planning line. I am sure there are more examples. In one example, a new and growing suburb will have a school but about one third of the area in question will not have priority or be considered part of the key catchment area for the school. The affected pupils are connected to a school planning area that is connected to a town 12 km or 13 km away where they are not going to go to school. They will be lower down the food chain if the nearby school is oversubscribed, which I very much expect. Children will very likely be denied the opportunity to go to a school that is less than 1 km away. That is not good enough but it can be solved. It means that the Department needs to examine the concept of school planning areas and engage in public consultation. The areas should be drawn in a way that reflects real communities. Perhaps there should be some flexibility whereby schools could tell the Department what their natural catchment area or community is if it does not correspond with the school planning area. This should not be difficult to resolve but it should be resolved. It is causing difficulties in Cork and I expect it is causing difficulties in Dublin, Kildare and other rapidly growing urban areas. I ask the Minister to examine this.

The main school admissions issue raised in my office, not in my capacity as a justice and education spokesperson but as a constituency Deputy, concerns autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units and special schools. It is heartbreaking when parents produce 12 letters of refusal or waiting lists for places. They might have been looking for a place for three or four years before coming to us. I am aware there are efforts to increase the number of units – I have seen some evidence of this at primary level, at least, in my constituency – but they need to go a lot further. We also need many more special school places. We come across children for whom the ASD unit is just not a fit.

They need special school places.

There is a significant gap in the number of ASD units at post-primary level, particularly in my area of Cork city. It is leading to parents and SENOs scrambling. They are doing their best, but they cannot work the miracle of the loaves and fishes. If there are no places, there are no places. That leads to children being home schooled when they could be in schools and other children being in units when they should be in special schools. All in all, it leads to a great deal of trauma, difficulty and educational loss.

Regarding the specific issue of school admissions, I urge the Minister to support this legislation. There is no logical reason not to do so.

6:00 pm

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Deputies for introducing this timely and important Bill. With respect, it is difficult to believe that the Minister does not support it. It has a basis in equality and I do not know what possible reason she has to object to that. She did not outline any when she spoke. Perhaps she might enlighten the House at some stage.

School places are at a premium in my constituency. In population terms, my constituency is the youngest in the State and one of the fastest growing. Building has not kept pace with demand. In Swords, for example, it is almost as if school admission policies exist to keep pupils out of schools. Every year, we get letters from parents who are frantic because they have one child in a school and have been told that they might not get a place for a younger child. That is frustrating. The Bill is timely because, in examining admission policies, we also need to determine what capacity is required to meet demand.

There is no justification for the current rule. The idea that one can be denied access to a school merely because a parent or grandparent did not attend it is abhorrent. It is shocking that the Minister does not find it abhorrent and that she seems to be okay with the old school tie network. We know why the old school tie works. Recently, we saw in the Dáil how privilege brought with it access, in some instances to the highest levels of government. Despite that, the Minister is prepared to do little to tackle the notion that a child can be denied a place in a school simply because his or her parent did not attend it. Plenty of people have parents who did not attend secondary school. My Dad did not. My Mam did, but if I had needed to rely on that, where would it have left me? Someone could be excluded. That is not right. It surprises me that the Minister can support not taking action. As has been mentioned, even if this legislation is passed following next Wednesday's vote, it will not be rushed through in the blink of an eye. There will still be time to deal with all of the matters the Minister outlined. I find the idea of the old school tie network, the nod and the wink and so on abhorrent. I urge the Minister to join me in that respect.

The impact of this system on a person whose parents were not educated in Ireland or were members of the Traveller community or another ethnic minority serves to exclude people who are not from what might be called the right class, estate or bloodline. That is incredible. I join others in urging the Minister to consider this matter and try to work with those of us in opposition who want to work with the Government, be constructive, use our time in the House wisely and be able to make a real difference. That is why we were elected. We were not elected to sit by and watch while the Government passed its own legislation. We have been elected to work hard for the people we represent.

I will use a minute of my time to raise a local issue with the Minister. I have written to her about it. Will funding be released to St. Nicholas of Myra National School on the Malahide Road? It needs a recreation and physical education hall. It has planning permission. The Minister has often stated that she wants to see shovel-ready capital projects. This is one, but for some reason she is not providing funding. In the middle of a pandemic, it is essential that there be a place for children to gather in their pods. I urge the Minister to reconsider her decision and revisit the idea of providing funding. It is not a large amount of money. The kids need a recreation and exercise facility, particularly in the middle of a pandemic. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it is how overcrowded our schools are and the need to change same.

There has been a great deal of discussion in the Chamber, the media and all around about how privilege operates in this State. The Minister will be aware of how it operates. No more than me, she has had a chance to observe it. She has seen how it operates. This Bill is an attempt to break that chain and disrupt the old school tie network. For the life of me, I cannot understand why she does not support it. It would not be enacted overnight, so there would be time to make all of the arrangements that she rightly outlined needed to be made. I urge her to reconsider her decision between now and the vote on Wednesday.

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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I listened to the Minister's speech. She stated that her legislative measures would come into effect next September and that they would apply new regulations on school admissions, but I cannot understand why she said she needed a year for that to happen and that this Bill would somehow mess up what she was trying to do. There is nothing in it that contradicts the Act at all. Instead, it is complementary of the Act's objectives.

I compliment Deputy Ó Ríordáin and the wider Labour Party on introducing this Bill. It goes to the heart of what we are about. I listened to other Deputies, mainly from urban backgrounds, talking about overcrowding in and pressure on schools. I come from the opposite end of the scale and a place where we only wish we had more students. There are three-teacher schools shrinking to two-teacher schools in rural areas because we cannot get enough students. In fairness, we have high achievers and children who progress well. Unfortunately, they must go further afield to attend university, particularly those from the north west where there is no university. They have to go outside the region and very few return because there are few jobs for graduates there.

All of these issues are linked. Deputy Ó Ríordáin discussed poverty and what it does. Poverty is not just the absence of money. It has other aspects. It engenders an absence of ambition, of possibilities and of looking forward to a brighter future. We see that around us everywhere. We come across people who are struggling in life and for whom a little crisis will muck up whatever future they have. Something as simple as a washing machine breaking down could be a crisis in their household because they live week to week and only have enough to get by. They and their families live under stress, and it is difficult for a family living under stress to have the mental capacity to plan for a positive future.

Education is the one thing in the country that we have always said is free. It goes back to Donogh O'Malley and the concept of free education, particularly at second level. That was revolutionary and magnificent.

Bit by bit, we see it creeping back. In recent years,more charges have come in for children going to school. It may be the pressures of the capitation grant, whereby schools do not get enough money and then they put a little pressure on parents to try to come up with some. All of that leads to a withdrawal of free education replaced by partially free education. That needs to end and the Minister seriously needs to examine that.

I have in mind situations involving school buses. When I was going to school, we got the school bus and there was no charge for it. Now there is a charge for it. Now there are numerous rules relating to it, including how close a student is to the school and how many children are in the catchment area. If the number is insufficient, the bus will not go down a given road. Where the bus stops is another issue. If it does not stop at a student's door, the student has to go so far to get the bus. If a family has to put a child into the car to go to meet the bus, they may as well go the whole way to the school because it would save the €600 per year it costs to pay for the bus.

6:10 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Deputy is wandering a little.

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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I understand that. I will come back to it, but it is all part of the same point. The point is that all of these issues are related to where we are in society. From the end of society I am talking about, I am referring to my experience in my area but I am looking at another Bill coming through the House, which is about looking at the opposite end of it. I refer to the fee-paying schools, the elite of the elite. Even at that, there is extra privilege added. Not only do people have to be able to pay to go to these schools, they have an extra advantage if the family that came before them came from a wealthy privileged background. It sets out the haves and have-nots in society. We need to sit up and take notice of other countries in the world. We have all been sitting up late at night looking across the Atlantic at a nation that has set itself up on the basis of have and have-nots. Where does that lead? The essence of what that Bill says is not appropriate.

We need to come back and look at reality. We need to look at the experiences of real people. We need to recognise that, as was said earlier, we are in a republic. In that republic all children should be treated equally. All families should be treated equally and should have equal access. Those who are at the bottom need to get an extra lift up. Those who are at the very top certainly do not need additional privilege built into the system to assist them. That privilege needs to be taken away. The effort and energy should be to ensure that everyone gets a clear and better possibility of making a better future.

The Minister has brought forward the idea of putting this out for a year to consider it. As Deputy Ó Laoghaire said, that is part of what the Government strategy seems to be with every Bill that comes forward, no matter how positive it is. The idea seems to be that the Government will push it on a little further and push it out. The Government will not simply say it is a good idea and agree to it and implement it. Yet, in the same breath the Government will ask why the Opposition is not more co-operative and does not try to help and so on. We want to help. We are coming forward with good ideas and proposals. Sometimes they may not be perfect. That is why we have a committee system. The Bill will go into the system and be thrashed around. Spokespeople and experts will be brought in, including people from the fee-paying schools. If they want to send in their organisations, the people who represent them can come before the committee and put forward whatever good or logical reasons they have. The matter is then in the open and debated. Then,we can progress things. However, to say that we are going to put it out for a year before we do that is simply kicking the can down the road. It is not a good idea. It does not reflect a Government that is about looking after everyone equally and cherishing all the children of the nation equally. That is what needs to happen. That needs to change.

I hope that by next Wednesday, when it comes to the vote, the Minister and her colleagues can re-examine this and recognise that there is merit in doing it now. It will not go through Committee Stage in a matter of weeks. It will take months and possibly more than a year. The Minister is talking about postponing this before it gets through a committee. We all know that. We have good legislation that is simply being pushed to one side because it is coming from the wrong place. That is most unfortunate and it is a poor reflection on Government.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We must attend to a little housekeeping. Given that we started at 5.55 p.m. the debate must conclude at 7.10 p.m. At the end I must give five minutes to the Minister and ten minutes to Deputy Ó Ríordáin to sum up. That means we have a little over ten minutes for Deputy Gary Gannon and Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú. Deputy Gannon is up first. If he takes all ten minutes, there will be nothing left for Deputy Ó Murchú.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I was planning on going on some wanderings but I will not do that now.

What we are talking about today, if we cut out the substance of what I was going to say, is power, privilege and the manner in which they replicate. This happens not only in the Irish education system but in Irish society as a whole.

Education in Ireland is defined by many characteristics. It is full of decent people, including principals, special needs assistants and teachers. Many of our schools have become places of sanctuary for students. These places are not only about educating them. They are places where students go to get fed and where they find a place of comfort and people to whom they can speak. That is very much part of our education system.

Yet at the heart and foundation of our education system, we find the manner in which power and privilege replicate. This happens in a manner that is stark. Every year we see it in our institutions and universities. We see that the people who get to go to the most elite universities are predominantly from the schools that are fee paying and that have elitism factored into them. We cannot deny that. I cannot get a parliamentary question answered on it. Yet if I pick up the Irish Timesfeeder school list, I will see it spelled out clearly in the list. The people who get access to the best courses come from the best schools.

We have a situation in Ireland where we have a pupil-teacher ratio of 26:1. I hope this will reduce to 25:1 in accordance with the budget but that will only happen in some schools. It does not happen in all schools. It happens in schools that are national or State schools. However, there are other schools where that would not even be considered. They have far lower pupil-teacher ratios. That gives people greater access to teaching times, supports and all that comes with it.

Then we see the starker manner in which power and privilege replicate. They are protected by a law that has been enshrined since 2018. Some 25% of school places have to be reserved. Their allocation depends upon whether a parent or grandparent went to the school. It is nonsensical and it lacks any sense of justice. The issue of access lacks any sort of basic justice and common decency and there is no reason this should be protected in our law. If we went back to 2018 to look at the groups advocating and lobbying for that Bill, we would not find Pavee Point, the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, National Women's Council or SPARK, which advocates on behalf of one-parent families. We would not find any of those institutions that try to protect and enhance the rights of people. Instead, we would find other institutions. I have no wish to cast aspersions on their characters but they are often places where people pay money to replicate privilege. That is what we enshrined in law in 2018.

This Bill was brought forward by my colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, from the Labour Party. It is succinct and short and seeks to address that. In 2020 in the Irish Republic is there any reason we cannot simply accept the fact that this is a good Bill? It is based on decency. It is not going to have major ramifications for the society we live in other than simply making it a little fairer. If that is not what this Chamber is about, then I am unsure what else we are trying to do here.

Ruairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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The glorious thing about coming in at the end is that all the good points have been made and I can steal one or two of them. I commend Deputy Ó Ríordáin. This is simple legislation. It has been said by almost all speakers that we are talking about equality. This is a small move. It is a step in the right direction and we could easily do it.

It was said by some of my colleagues earlier that we could simply let this go from Second Stage to Committee Stage and then deal with any issues. At that stage all stakeholders would have an opportunity to come in. It is difficult to see this as anything other than a scenario where those who are already ahead ensure they stay ahead. The reality is that there are schools who use this 25% rule as a means of ensuring that the right people go to the school. That means the wrong people do not but they may already be in a situation where they have had to deal with fewer opportunities.

My father was a principal in Dundalk at St. Joseph's National School in Muirhevna Mór for many years. From time to time, he would refer to the issue of teachers who would try to do their best. They would be all into ensuring that they were getting the best results from the children and all the rest of it.

However, he said that very quickly they needed to realise that sometimes there were kids in class who did not necessarily have all the supports and opportunities they should and that there was absolutely no point in having a row with a kid about not having homework done or not having a pencil when the kid might not have had breakfast for a couple of days. This Bill will not deal with those sorts of problems but it is a step in the right direction.

We have had other difficulties as Teachtaí Dála in our constituencies. We have often had parents come to us about not being able to get their kids into particular schools. They fall on the wrong side of a line on a map that was decided arbitrarily and sometimes does not make a lot of sense. I ask the Minister to examine the rules and protocols in respect of all that with a view to allowing for something more sensible.

I do not need to continue in that vein. This is a straightforward ask. Should this not happen? Should we not give people opportunities as opposed to giving an added benefit to those who already have it and do not necessarily need it? Do we make our society slightly fairer? As I said, this Bill will not deal with all the inequalities we have. We need to consider a greater level of early interventions. It is not just that we need more SNAs and need to ensure we have early diagnoses; we need to ensure we provide all these added supports such as breakfast clubs that people may need when we are dealing with cases of sometimes multigenerational trauma. Here we all deal in other parts of our work with the outworkings of this. We work with children who were never given the supports they required and who then, later in life, due to bad choices that are, in turn, down to bad opportunities end up in bad places. We have all dealt with these sorts of circumstances. The drugs problem and other societal problems all stem from this. We, therefore, need to deal with the very simple issues we have here. If it is something like this, straightforward legislation that will introduce a level of equality that will make some people's lives better, we should do that. We then also need to consider major interventions that are required to give those supports to those children, communities and parents with a view not just to equality of opportunity but to equality of outcome.

It is in the Minister's hands to deal with this one simple request, and there is absolute agreement in this Chamber that it would be very simple. It would also be a message about how we in this House can work together and about bringing about the best results for the people we represent. Once again, I ask the Minister to put aside the general politics and to consider offering something that will make this world a little better. I commend Deputy Ó Ríordáin on what is a very straightforward request that may just make things a little better.

6:20 pm

Norma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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In Deputy Ó Ríordáin's absence, I absolutely accept his bona fides in introducing this Bill and his good intentions. In the interest of fairness, my motivation in moving this amendment is equally well intentioned. I have listened to the Deputies with interest.

I must point out and, indeed, take exception to remarks that have been made about not alone my party but also the Government in which I serve in respect of the value and importance we place on education. No one recognises or prioritises more the importance of education than the current Government. That is an indisputable fact, considering the package of resources and measures it has put in place. In excess of €400 million has been put in place for Covid measures within our schools. A budget just short of €9 billion in resources is being introduced for the benefit of our schools. The measures included in the budget, as Deputy Gannon mentioned, ensure that the pupil-teacher ratio will fall from 26:1 to 25:1. The budget also caters for a reduction by three points in the enrolment entitlement to retain a teacher. Equally, 1,065 additional posts are being made available, 400 of which will be for teachers who will work with children with special educational needs, to which Deputies have referred. There will be almost 1,000 additional SNAs, bringing the number within our school system to a record high of 18,000. A sum of €740 million is being made available to provide 200 building projects and an additional 145 projects, 200 of which will be completed in 2021, a further 145 of which will begin by July 2021. There are other supports I could mention, such as a package of DEIS supports, but I will not go on. I wish to make clear, however, the determination and focus of the Government on education. It has been alluded to on numerous occasions by the Government that it is a number one priority. That can be seen in the delivery even thus far, in the early stages of the Government that was formed on 27 June.

Specifically, I have moved this amendment because schools are currently undertaking their admission processes for the 2021-22 school year in accordance with their agreed and published admissions policies. It would, therefore, be hugely disruptive to schools and their communities to delete the provision as proposed in the Bill at this time. As I have previously outlined, the Act requires that any changes made to the published admissions policy of a school require consultation within the school community, redrafting and approval and publication by the board. At the current time in particular, this would cause an increase in workload for schools, as I am sure all the Deputies would appreciate.

Equally, it would be premature to accept the Bill, which proposes to delete section 62(10)(b) of the Act, without undertaking a review of the impact and use of the provision. The amendment I have moved represents a fairer approach that allows time to assess the impact of this section on school admissions. Again, it is worth noting that schools may choose to invoke the 25% provision and we will not know that until it has kicked in in September 2021. In allowing time for review, we will then be in a better position to make an informed decision rather than a rushed response at this stage, which would have the unintended consequence of causing disruption to schools and increasing their workload when they are operating under other significant challenges at this time.

To reiterate, information as to how many schools will choose to invoke this 25% provision and its impact or otherwise on school enrolment will only become apparent when it becomes operational in September 2021. This amendment seeks only to allow an opportunity to review the use of this admissions criterion in order that an informed and considered view of this proposed legislation can take place.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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I wish to state genuinely my appreciation to my colleagues from Sinn Féin and the Social Democrats who have attended this evening for taking part in the debate and, indeed, my colleague, Deputy Duncan Smith, who proposed the Bill. It is gratifying to know that people feel similarly across the Opposition benches about an issue of equality and of education. I very much appreciate the Minister's attendance. There has been a practice sometimes of Ministers of State coming in for such business. The Minister is present and I very much appreciate that. It would have been illuminating, possibly, to hear other Government voices and their views on the Bill, but that is how it is.

Part of the reason we have such an objection to this part of the Act is because of who is asking for it. It is being asked for by a particular vested interest group, the fee-paying second level sector. They are the ones who asked for it, and they got it. It goes against any sense of justice I have that a particularly powerful vested interest gets what it wants when it comes to Irish education in the form of an admissions Bill.

That is wrong. It was stated eloquently earlier that one might imagine a disadvantaged child who has all these things to overcome, whose parents are early school leavers and who battles his or her way through the DEIS system. The Minister mentioned DEIS and I just want to remind her that her cut in pupil-teacher ratio does not transfer automatically to all DEIS schools. I hope she rectifies that between now and next September.

Children have oral, language and dietary issues children, there are also the drugs issues that are sometimes in their communities, the housing issues and the way society looks down upon the way they speak. Some children and the way they speak are depicted in the media as if they are either untrustworthy or stupid. Children know and feel this and are aware of it from an early age. They battle their way through primary school and all those obstructions between them and maximizing their potential, a lack of resources, etc. They finally make their way to secondary school and a scenario can legally exist whereby a principal can say to the parents of that child that he or she is terribly sorry but the school has 25% of its intake set aside for the parents and grandparents of past pupils. What kind of message is that to send to that family? It is a pretty powerful message that it does not really matter what a person tries to do.

There will always be a State-sanctioned legal reason to put a person back in his or her box. The Minister can say that we do not know how often it is being invoked and that it may be too difficult to take it out. If we have learned anything from the past number of months, however, it is that it actually is not that difficult. I know from my time in government, and it was brief enough, that if it is important enough and the people it affects are powerful enough, it can be done immediately.

The Minister is not criticising the ethics of or intention behind Bill. I appreciate that. I appreciate her bona fides when it comes to education but can we agree this should never have been inserted in the first place. We are just trying to take out something that should not have been there. That is all. They came, they asked and they got their way. That is all, except they should not have got their way.

As I said before, in a republic or in any sort of admissions Bill or legislation that tries to enhance the opportunities of children, it should not matter where or if a person's parents went to school. There is a list of minority groups set down in the existing legislation against which a school is not allowed to discriminate. There are, however, a disproportionate number of Traveller children whose parents did not attend secondary school. Of course, there are a disproportionate number of migrant children whose parents did not attend secondary school in the State, never mind those from disadvantaged backgrounds whose parents or grandparents may not have attended secondary school. There are three groups, off the top of my head, who need education more than anybody else because they have no other route out of poverty. Boys and girls who attend private schools will be fine. They will make their way and they will be grand. For the children to whom I refer, education is their one chance - it is the great liberator. The Minister knows that. Yet, children must compete for places in oversubscribed schools with those whose parents or grandparents attended such schools. The Minister knows and I know that is wrong.

This Bill will not change the world; that is not the intention behind it. What it tries to do, however, is call out over-influence in these Houses by a group of people who get what they want. They come to these Houses, ask for something and get it. They expect to get it. As Deputy Gannon quite rightly said, if Pavee Point, the National Women's Council of Ireland, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland or another interest group that tries to advocate for the rights of those who do not have the same power walked in and asked for something like the admissions Bill, would they get it as readily and as quickly? Could they walk into the into the corridors of power and get a section into a Bill as readily and as easily and then have somebody like the Minister stand up and defend it? That was the interesting thing about the Minister's contribution. She did not actually defend it, she just stated that it would be too difficult or too onerous to take it out immediately. That is her defence. There is, therefore, no defence for the relevant section. The Minister does not have a defence for the section.

This is what we are talking about here. There is a wider issue in Irish society that relates to influence and power: who has it and who does not; who uses it and who wields it; and who gets it and who gets things done because they can. It is not just about politics, it is about businesses. As Deputy Ó Laoghaire stated, these are all facets of Irish life. The people to whom I refer know each other. They play golf together. They talk about the old days in school together and ensure that they enshrine in legislation that this can continue from one generation to the next. We are suggesting that we must focus our attention on the children and families that do not have this kind of power. That needs to be the cornerstone of our belief system in the Republic. It is offensive to me that such a monied, influential and powerful education lobby gets its way. The existing legislation was passed by the Dáil and the Seanad. We put down the amendment at the time that was supported in the Seanad by Sinn Féin and other Opposition groups - not the Minister's party, I must say - in order that this would not be enacted in the first place. We outlined to the then Minister the reasons we were against it. We hold him why it was wrong. Our argument was dismissed and the legislation was enacted.

As others have stated, politics does not have to be this way. It does not have to be about us versus Government and having a row and scoring points off each other. It does not have to be about bringing in other issues and trying to pretend to the public we have all the answers and that the Minister is making nothing but mistakes, because that is not true. It is just not accurate. Government works hard and has decent people within it trying to achieve things for the people. I absolutely accept that and people in opposition are similar when legislation that is well-intentioned is brought forward by the Social Democrats, Sinn Féin or the Labour Party. As one accepts, not every item of legislation from Opposition is well-intended. Obviously, sometimes there is game playing and grandstanding. That happens a lot. We accept that. The Minister has accepted, however, that is not the case here. She must accept that when it comes to Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats or other groups in this Chamber, it is often not the case. She has accepted this evening that it is not the case. In light of that, would it be possible, between now and next Wednesday, to come to a position whereby the Minister will take a different approach to the Bill, namely, that the relevant section of the Act can be deleted because we are starting afresh and because, in post-Covid Ireland, we will have a different mindset about how our public institutions and schools can be run?

Amendment put.

6:30 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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De réir Bhuan-Ordú 80(2), cuirfear an vótáil ar ceal go dtí an tseachtain seo chugainn.

The Dáil adjourned at at 7.10 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 10 November 2020.