Dáil debates

Wednesday, 7 July 2021

Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019 [Seanad]: Second Stage


1:57 pm

Photo of Norma FoleyNorma Foley (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to be in a position to bring the Bill to the House. The Bill has been passed by the Seanad, where it received cross-party support. I believe this is important legislation as it seeks to provide a clear framework for schools in regard to engagement within their school communities and between home and school. As Members will be aware, a spirit of open communication and partnership is vital to the running of the school. At its very best, education extends well beyond the classroom and into the lives and homes of everyone within a school community, and this includes students, their families and, of course, staff.

For a school community to reach its full potential, it requires the support of everyone involved. I know from my experience that many parents and staff give freely of their time and support to ensure their school community is able to reach its fullest potential. One such experience is the wonderful tradition in Ireland of volunteer-led boards of management, which contribute so much to the quality of education. Communication and engagement must be at the heart of how a school is run. I know many schools do this well and have positive and open communication within their school community. Those schools can attest to the positive benefit of engagement with students, parents and staff for the entire school community.

This legislation will support all schools by providing a clear framework to guide them in establishing and implementing good practice. It will do so by amending the Education Act 1998. That Act sets out a clear framework for the operation and management of schools in Ireland. However, while the 1998 Act includes some provisions that can guide, aid and influence the relationship between a school and its staff, students and parents, it does not currently provide significant guidance as to how schools engage with staff, students and their parents on a proactive basis. While there are limited provisions within the Education Act as to communication with the parents and students, it is focused on creating procedures to process grievances or appeals once they have arisen. As important as this is, we must also take proactive measures to create a positive school environment. The approach being taken in this Bill is to shift away from concentrating on reacting to problems in schools after issues arise to an approach that aims to improve the day-to-day experience the school community can expect from schools. This will be done by setting out clearly a framework that schools will apply in their engagement with the school community.

Under this framework, every school will be required to prepare, publish and implement a school community charter. This charter must adhere to national charter guidelines developed and published by the Minister. The charter guidelines will be developed in consultation with the education partners, including those organisations representing students and their parents. The consultation process will be an important element in ensuring that the guidelines achieve their objective in a manner that is straightforward and effective for students, parents and school staff.

This Bill has 11 sections. Section 1 is a standard definitions section.

Section 2 is the largest as it inserts four new sections, namely, sections 27A to 27D, inclusive, into the Education Act 1998. I will outline these new sections in more detail. Section 27A provides that a school board of management must prepare, publish and implement a charter in accordance with the Minister's charter guidelines. In preparing its charter, the board must consult with the patron, school principal, school staff, students, parents, the student council and the parents' association, and must prepare the charter in accordance with the charter guidelines. Each school charter must affirm that the charter has been prepared by the board in accordance and compliance with the charter guidelines. Section 27A prohibits a school board from including content in its charter that is not in accordance with, or provided for by, the charter guidelines. It also provides that the board must review and amend its charter as provided for by the charter guidelines.

Section 27B requires the Minister to develop and put in place national charter guidelines. The guidelines must address, inter alia, the following: the content of school charters; the process by which a school board will prepare, publish and implement its charter, including procedures for consultation with stakeholders at school level; the implementation of school charters; the procedures for reviewing and amending a charter; and such other matters as are necessary or appropriate for the purposes of the guidelines. In developing the charter guidelines, the Minister must consult with the education partners, including bodies representing students and their parents, as well as the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children. The section provides that the Minister must carry out a review of charter guidelines at least every five years.

Section 27B also provides that the charter guidelines in respect of the content of charters in schools may relate to the following matters: the procedures for consulting with students and their parents on such matters relating to the school as may be specified in the charter guidelines, including by inviting, and responding to, comments and suggestions from students and their parents on any such matter; and information on school plans and policies of the school, other than the admission policy, and the activities of the school. As the Admissions Act 2018 sets out a separate and comprehensive legal framework for the development, publication and implementation of schools' admission policy, the admission policy is excluded from this provision and similar provisions in the Bill. The section also provides for the procedures, including consultation procedures, for the preparation, review and updating of school plans and policies of the school, other than the admission policy, and the development, review and updating of the activities of the school; the procedures for informing students and their parents of matters relating to the operation and performance of the school; and the procedures for informing students and their parents of the activities of the school.

Other charter content set out in section 27B includes information on the structures and systems for the management of the school; the information to be provided to students and their parents relating to moneys that the school receives, including voluntary contributions made by parents, and the expenditure of those moneys by the school, and of the form and manner in which that information is to be provided; the information to be provided to students and their parents relating to the school calendar, closures and timetables and of the form and manner in which that information is to be provided; and the procedures for dealing with grievances of students or their parents relating to the school, and details of aggregated and anonymised information to be provided to students and their parents relating to grievances dealt with by the school, which may include the number or type of such grievances and related outcomes, and the form and manner in which that information is to be provided. The section also provides that the guidelines may, where the Minister considers it necessary, include model charters for different categories of schools and contain different provisions for different categories of schools or different categories of students.

Section 27C provides that the Minister, in preparing the charter guidelines, must have regard to certain matters that are specified in this section.

These matters align with the core principles that were set out in the general scheme of the Bill. There are ten such matters listed from (a) to (j). These are the need for a school to:

(a) seek to achieve, as far as practicable and subject to the resources available, the best possible outcomes for students in relation to their education and personal development,

(b) foster and promote the relationship and a spirit of partnership between the school and students and their parents,

(c) foster and promote mutual respect in communications between the school, including teachers or other staff of the school, on the one hand and students or their parents on the other hand,

(d) ensure, as appropriate, confidentiality in communications referred to in paragraph (c),

(e) promote the role and participation of parents in the education and personal development of students,

(f) consult with, and encourage the participation and engagement of, students (to the extent appropriate to their age and experience) and their parents, and respond, as appropriate, to comments and suggestions made by students and their parents, in respect of the development, review and updating of school plans and policies of the school (other than the admission policy) and the activities of the school,

(g) monitor and review the provision of education by the school to students, including by consulting with, and responding, as appropriate, to comments and suggestions made by, students (to the extent appropriate to their age and experience) and their parents, for the purposes of assessing and improving such provision on an ongoing basis,

(h) foster and promote equality of access for students to, and participation by students in, education by seeking, as far as practicable, to reduce the costs to parents and students of such participation,

(i) address and resolve concerns of students or their parents relating to the school, as far as possible, at an early stage, and

(j) ensure that grievances of students or their parents relating to the school are dealt with efficiently, effectively and fairly and, as far as possible, in an informal manner consistent with the principles of fair procedures.

The fourth new section, 27D, provides the Minister with a power to give a board of management a direction where he or she is of the opinion that the board has failed or is failing in whole or in part, to comply with its obligation to prepare, publish and implement a charter. Before issuing a direction, the Minister must give the board and school patron notice of his or her intention to give a direction, setting out the reasons and the proposed remedial action. The notice must offer the board and the patron, or both, an opportunity to make representations on the proposed direction and provide the board and patron with at least 14 days to do so. The board and the patron therefore have an opportunity to rectify the matter before a direction issues or to make representations on the proposed direction.

The Minister must, in deciding whether or not to give a direction, consider any representations. Where the Minister proceeds to issue a direction, the board must comply with that direction. The Minister is also required to publish the direction on the Department's website no later than 14 days from the date of issue. The board must confirm in writing to the Minister when it has complied with the direction and the Minister, on being satisfied that a direction has been complied with, must publish a notice to that effect on the Department's website. The Minister must also give notice in writing to the board and the patron that he or she is satisfied that the direction has been complied with.

I will move to the other sections of the Bill. Section 3 provides for the amendment of section 2 of the Act of 1998 by inserting definitions for "charter" and "charter guidelines". Section 4 provides for the amendment of section 9 of the Act of 1998. Section 9 of the Act of 1998 sets out the various statutory functions of a school. In line with the purpose and aims of this Bill, two new important functions of a school are being inserted by section 4. These are to promote the involvement of students and their parents in the provision of education to students, and to ensure the implementation of the charter.

Section 5 provides for the amendment of section 20 of the Act of 1998. Section 20 currently refers to procedures for informing parents, but not students, of matters relating to the operation and performance of the school. It is being amended to link those procedures to the charter guidelines and to provide that both students and parents are referred to in the section.

Section 6 provides for the amendment of section 21 of the Act of 1998. Section 21 of the Education Act 1998 concerns the school plan and is being amended to ensure that the arrangements for the preparation of a school plan referred to in that section must comply with any applicable charter guidelines in respect of same.

Section 7 provides for the amendment of section 27 of the Act of 1998. Section 27(1) requires schools to have procedures for informing students about the activities of the school. It is being amended to ensure those procedures comply with any charter guidelines in respect of same and to provide that both students and parents are referred to in this provision.

Section 7 also amends section 27(4) which concerns the role of a student council. The amendment changes the requirement of a student council from one of promoting the interest of the school to a requirement to promote the interest of the students of the school having regard to the characteristic spirit and policies of the school and the charter.

Section 8 provides for replacement of the existing section 28 of the Act of 1998. The existing section 28 of the Education Act 1998 is replaced with a new section 28. The new section 28 is designed to work in tandem with the other charter-related provisions in the Bill. Together, these provisions will ensure that all schools will be required to have and to implement standardised grievance procedures that will be set out in the national charter guidelines following consultation with the education partners. This new section 28 provides that these grievance procedures must provide for matters such as: the requirements to be complied with by the school and the student or parent concerned in relation to the grievance process; the investigation of grievances in a manner appropriate to the nature of the grievance, whether by informal or formal means or both; the resolution of grievances, either formally or informally; the giving of reasons for its decisions on grievances; and the implementation of decisions and any remedial action required.

Section 28(2) provides that a school may, in accordance with the charter guidelines, decide not to deal with the grievance where the grievance is, in the opinion of the school, vexatious or frivolous, and that the school shall give to the student or parent, as the case may be, the reasons for such a decision.

Section 9 is a technical amendment and provides for the amendment of section 42 of the Teaching Council Act 2001 to update an existing reference in that Act to section 28 of the Education Act 1998, replacing it with reference to the grievance procedures provided for under this Bill.

Similarly, section 10 provides for a technical amendment of section 9 of the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 to update an existing reference in that Act to section 28 of the Education Act 1998, replacing it with a reference to the grievance procedures provided for in this Bill.

The final section of the Bill, section 11, is a standard provision to provide for the Short Title, commencement and collective citation of the Education Acts.

I have outlined the provisions of the Bill as passed by the Seanad. I will outline the amendments that I wish to make to the Bill as it progresses through the Dáil. I know that a school can only be at its best when the full engagement and inclusion of every student, parent and member of staff is involved. Since becoming Minister, I have pursued a partnership approach. I am especially pleased that the student voice has been an integral part of all stakeholder engagements in recent months. I believe in an inclusive, collaborative approach to education. I therefore advise the House that I intend to table an amendment on Committee Stage to amend the Short Title of the Bill to the education (school community charter) Bill. The school community will be defined in the Bill as including students, parents and school staff. This amendment should help to reflect the importance of the role of the entire school community in the education of children and young people and to help ensure that the engagement and listening culture that the charter currently provides for is inclusive of the entire school community.

Further amendments to the Bill will be necessary to replace references to students and parents with references to the school community. These amendments will ensure that school staff are included in the consultation process, which the charter provides for, and that they are provided with the same information that students and parents are provided with. I know that many stakeholders have expressed concerns that the Bill as it was initially presented was not fully inclusive of the entire school community. I hope that these changes address those concerns and demonstrate our commitment to ensuring that the Bill is inclusive of everyone in a school.

It is not proposed that the national grievances procedures for parents and students as provided for by the charter guidelines would include school staff, as they are employees of the board of management and have separate grievance procedures.

I also intend to bring another key amendment to the Bill in respect of section 9(2) of the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002. This amendment is proposed to ensure that the Bill does not impact on the current role and remit of the Ombudsman for Children in considering grievances from students and parents. The Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 currently provides in section 9(2) that the Ombudsman for Children may carry out an investigation under the Act in relation to its school only where the grievance procedures prescribed under section 28 of the Education Act have been resorted to and exhausted. Schools are the only body or organisation where there is an absolute bar on the Ombudsman for Children investigating until the local grievance processes have concluded.

However, since no procedures have to date been prescribed under section 28 of the 1998 Act, in practical terms this provision is not operational and, therefore, the Act currently applies to schools in the same way it does to other bodies that can be investigated by the Ombudsman for Children. Without an amendment to this Bill this position would be changed. The Ombudsman for Children has advised that, in practice, the ombudsman would investigate complaints before the local process is exhausted only where the ombudsman has reason to believe that the local process has been deliberately frustrated or that an urgent risk is presented to a child or student. I want to ensure this position is maintained. My officials will engage with the ombudsman further regarding this amendment.

In conclusion, I believe that this Bill is very important legislation. It will both positively and proactively enhance and improve the experience of the entire school community in our schools. I look forward to hearing the views of Deputies regarding the Bill.

2:17 pm

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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I am sharing time with Deputies Martin Kenny and Patricia Ryan who have five minutes each. On the whole, Sinn Féin supports the Bill. It is right to create uniformity in this area and set out in clear terms the relationship between schools, parents and students. Providing a framework in the form of a charter for parents and students will surely have a positive impact on engagement between all parties, including teachers, staff, parents and students. I welcome the amendment mentioned by the Minister, which is to insert the word "community" into the Bill, because I have found the very best schools are the ones that look outward to their communities and get involved in community activities and initiatives. That says an awful lot about a school and the ethos within it in terms of openness. Many schools are excellent at that and really benefit from it, as do students, in a very profound way, whether it is through community initiatives on bullying or other key issues within the community.

However, there are still areas that need to be improved. We will work collaboratively to strengthen the Bill. I thank and commend members of the voluntary boards of management who give up their time to do magnificent, and often thankless, work. They are often expected to deal with ever-increasing complex issues relating to the provision of education in their communities with very little thanks. School principals are overstretched and under-resourced to cope with all the bureaucracy and instructions delivered from the Department. The proper resources need to come with this charter, whether these are for principals or boards of management. To make this charter really effective we need to underpin it with resources. We are not talking about an awful lot, but we need to have resources for collaboration, communication and the extra workload involved in devising the charters, especially for teaching principals so they are not overburdened any more than they are already.

It is proposed in the Bill that the review of ministerial guidelines shall be at the discretion of the Minister, but experience tells us that this is a case of "whenever suits" as opposed to when there is evidence of systematic flaws. We cannot allow lethargy to weigh down this fundamental relationship between schools and parents and Sinn Féin seeks to amend this aspect of the Bill. Sinn Féin considers reviews of the charter should be conducted with predictable regularity at intervals of three to five years. The Bill sets out information on how grievances parents and students have with schools are handled. The Bill, as it stands, allows schools to dismiss complaints where they believe them to be frivolous or vexatious. While it is likely that schools will sometimes receive complaints that may not hold water, this provision, as it stands, is unnecessarily broad and may result in legitimate complaints being thrown out without any reasons given. Sinn Féin submitted amendments in the Seanad that would compel schools to give reasons, in writing, why a complaint was dismissed. That is very important.

The Bill makes some progress in placing a statutory obligation on schools to consult students and parents on school costs. I have found that in most of the cases where there has been a breakdown in relationships between families, parents and schools, it is because of a lack of resources, particularly in the area of resources for special needs. For instance, I know of a 15-year-old lad who has been sent on a 100-mile round trip to access education. His local school is very willing to provide that education, but it needs the resources to be able to do it. It needs resources for safety reasons and in order for him, as the Minister rightly said, to be able to fulfil his potential. That is really an area that needs to be looked at. Many of the communication problems could be alleviated by putting in the resources and listening to boards of management and schools so they are not left on their own.

Many costs for families are above and beyond the scope of the schools themselves. School transport is one of them, even if families win the fight for a seat on the bus to begin with. If they do not have a medical card, families then have to pay €100 per primary school child and €350 for second level students. Even at this stage of the year, many parents are anxious about how they will find €350, or €600 if they have more than one child. They ask what they will be able to cut back in the summer in order to be able to meet that cost. Just because a household does not have a medical card does not mean it is financially sound. The thresholds, which have not been raised for years, are ridiculously low, as the Minister knows. The cost of examinations, papers, books and information technology, IT, equipment all increase pressure on families.

It is disappointing that the Bill does not specifically mention school uniforms or put an onus on the school to make generic non-branded uniforms available. Barnardos has reported that 65% of parents of primary school pupils and 74% of parents with children in secondary school are requested to pay a voluntary contribution. These contributions can range from €50 to €300 a year. That is an awful lot of money to ask from hard-pressed parents. One of the most notable aspects of the Bill is that it proposes the charter contains information for parents on voluntary contributions. Again, in the Seanad, Sinn Féin submitted an amendment in the hope of standardising the regulation and collation of data on voluntary contributions so parents would know how much schools collected and what the money was being spent on. Some schools are very good at that transparency and communicating with parents on it. The amendment passed Committee Stage with the support of all parties, bar Fine Gael. However, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil coalesced on Report Stage to vote this amendment down. I ask the Minister to reconsider that now that the Bill is in this House. We intend to submit amendments on this issue again in the Dáil.

Sinn Féin's long-term view is that voluntary contributions should be abolished and capitation funding must be increased. It is not right that these costs should fall on parents on top of all the other back-to-school costs they face. Children are constitutionally guaranteed free education, but these contributions are voluntary in name only with parents feeling obliged to pay them. For some parents, that is just not possible. The shame and embarrassment that is caused, in some cases, where parents just cannot afford the contributions that are being requested is extremely unjust. Many families, especially single-parent households, are forced into debt as a result of so-called voluntary contributions and that adds many financial pressures.

The average cost of secondary school is €1,891 per child per annum. This has been increasing year on year. Over the six-year course of a second level education, the so-called voluntary contribution constitutes a regressive tax which costs parents on average €700 per annum. This is a failing on the part of the State. We should act to give workers and families a break in this regard. Sinn Féin will table an amendment in this regard in the hope of standardising the regulation and collation of data on the voluntary contribution. We should be working our way towards no voluntary contributions because the State will be properly financing our schools. In other jurisdictions in the European Union and across Europe, such voluntary contributions are banned. We need to look at why they are banned.

It is time we poverty-proofed our education system from preschool to third and fourth level. Forcing families into financial stress to access basic primary and second level education is not acceptable in a society that calls itself a republic, one that has a Constitution that underpins the right to free education. It should never be the case we cherish all of the children equally provided they can pay.

2:27 pm

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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Sinn Féin welcomes this legislation which, by and large, seeks to formalise what many school boards of management already do. Much of that work is already happening and there is already transparency in that regard. It must be said that very many boards of management operate in a voluntary capacity. They put in a lot of time and effort to run schools throughout this country. The amount of funding by way of the capitation grant to schools is always a problem. It is for this reason so many schools need to fundraise and seek voluntary contributions. This is a poor reflection on how we value our education system.

This legislation, while welcome in terms of what is seeks to do, does not go to the core of the problems in this area. In many cases, schools are under-resourced. The Minister will be aware that one of the primary areas in respect of which they are under-resourced is in regard to special needs provision and classes. Families with children who are at various stages on the autism spectrum or who may have other conditions find that getting resources in place for their children is a struggle and a fight. The principal of the school, the parents and everyone else involved find themselves fighting with special educational needs organisers, SENOs, to get extra hours and to get special nees assistants, SNAs, in place. At the end of the year, there is always a fear the SNA hours will be cut, that an SNA will be withdrawn or that the full-time SNA will be replaced with a part-time SNA because a child has improved a little. In my constituency, I am dealing with a case involving a child who has been assessed as having improved in the past 12 months and, therefore, an SNA is deemed no longer necessary. The parents are worried the child will regress when that support is taken away. It is foolhardy and wrong that families are under stress and strain that this might happen. It is a real issue in many places.

There is another issue that needs to be addressed. In many places, school boards of management are dealing with poor infrastructure. I understand the Minister met recently with the board of management of Scoil Mhuire in Carrick-on-Shannon which is seeking the construction of a new school building because they are in a very fragmented situation at the moment. There is a real need for a new primary school in Carrick-on-Shannon to deal with the growing numbers in a growing town. The existing building is totally inadequate. This is reflected in many places throughout the country. The putting in place of a charter will not resolve those big issues; they will continue to be the big problem. As has been said by a number of contributors in previous debates on this issue, there is a fear among some boards of management that for them this charter could mean extra pressure, more work and additional cost. While the Bill is deemed to have no cost to the Exchequer, in terms of the extra work it could have a cost for boards of management, who are the ones who will have to implement it.

Another issue we have in many areas is that of small schools and decreasing pupil numbers and the resultant loss of teachers and so on. In the rural area I come from this is an ongoing problem. Many small schools are under serious pressure, in part because of the school transport service and the manner in which it operates in regard to small rural areas. For example, to be eligible for school transport a child must attend the nearest school and there must be a set number of children on the route for it to be established in the first place. Some places are concessionary and others are entitled. No child in this State could be considered a concession. Every child should be eligible for full educational services, part of which should be transport to school.

The issue of school secretaries also needs to be dealt with. It has been ongoing for years now and it needs to be dealt with appropriately and as quickly as possible.

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I apologise that the clock disappeared momentarily but we have been tracking the time manually.

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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I too welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, particularly the long overdue amendment to the Education Act 1998. Parents and students need consistency, openness and transparency. A charter between schools, students and parents is a step towards achieving this. I am concerned the guidelines that limit the scope of this charter are too narrow. I understand there is provision for the Minister to consult education partners, the Ombudsman for Children and such other Ministers, bodies or persons considered appropriate before making the guidelines. I urge the Minister to ensure there is consultation with the National Parents Council, student representative bodies and teachers' unions to ensure their voices are heard.

Sinn Féin has proposed an important amendment to this Bill seeking to regulate the publicly available information on how much money is collected by schools through voluntary contributions. I am aware some of my colleagues also spoke about voluntary contributions. Education should be free. It is outrageous that schools rely on these contributions to remain open. Some schools use the voluntary contributions to pay for basics such as electricity and oil bills due to underfunding through reduced capitation grants. In this regard, no data are made available to the Department of Education. We believe it is important the Department would have access to those data and that they should be published so we know how much is collected by the schools annually. The amendment will inform parents of the amount of money being collected and the purposes for which it is spent. It will also, for the first time, inform us of the shortfall in funding. This is an important step in the direction of abolishing voluntary contributions in schools.

As of now, we are unaware of how much is collected annually. Despite being called "voluntary", the contributions are often far from that, with some schools in dire need of these funds due to under-resourcing. A recent survey suggests parents contribute €40 million per annum, but the truth is we do not know the amount. We need to be able to access that information. I have been told of multiple requests of struggling parents for this supposedly voluntary contribution. Many parents have told me they feel shamed into paying it. This is wrong. No child should be discriminated against due to the inability of parents to pay this contribution. Parents should be fully informed of the voluntary nature of the contribution.

As we are speaking about the future of education, I must mention the lack of school places in my constituency of Kildare South. I have been contacted by several parents who do not know what school their child will attend in two months' time. This is Third World stuff. We are living in one of the richest countries in the world. We need joined-up thinking and a plan for the population growth we are experiencing. Monasterevin has waited 20 years for a new secondary school. I am delighted to note it is in progress but I am afraid it will be above capacity when completed. A new build for Coláiste Íosagáin in Portarlington is at preliminary design stage. Newbridge and Kildare town need new schools as well. The wheels are moving too slowly and urgent action is needed now to prevent a looming crisis. Fine Gael and the Labour Party in government imposed cuts of €130 million in the education area in 2012. Capital spend, which included several large infrastructure projects, was cut by €750 million. This is when we should have been investing in education to stop the brain drain. Sinn Féin in government will reverse these savage cuts. We need to invest in the future and I sincerely hope we will.

2:37 pm

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a bheith anseo chun éisteacht linn mar gheall ar an mBille seo. This is good legislation which the Labour Party is happy to support. We need to change the conversation around education in its totality. With that in mind, it is beyond time for us to discuss the establishment of a citizens' assembly on education. Seeing as we hope that we are now coming out of this pandemic and given that many fault lines have been exposed by that pandemic and that many power struggles in the area of education have also been identified, it is now time for us to take an entirely new look at the way in which the education system is structured. This is important if we are to put students and parents at the heart of the discussion on education.

We know of the pressure that students brought to bear on the system by demanding to be heard with regard to the leaving certificate. In fairness to the Minister, this campaign was met with a listening Minister. The leaving certificate was only changed to a model based on choice because she was willing to listen and took the students' view on board and treated them with respect. Deputy Foley will not always be the Minister for Education, however. That is why we need legislation to underpin that type of understanding and engagement. When I worked in the education sphere, I was always told to look at everything from the perspective of the child or young person. It is rare enough that the child is at the centre of our debates on education. There are any amount of power brokers and power struggles between vested interests, including representative bodies, patron bodies and the Department. It is rare that the child is at the centre of everything we discuss.

I remember taking this to the extreme and, when the children had gone home, sitting in the very chairs in my classroom in which they sat to see how they viewed the education system and what it was physically like. I wanted to see how far they were from the board, the draughty window or the toilets and whether their space was encroached on by the people beside them. It was really instructive. If one physically places oneself in the place of the children, one's mind is opened to their experience. The whole point of education is not to cater for people like the Minister and I or people working within the system but for those whom we are all trying to serve, the children and young people. Having said that, if the teachers, the SNAs and the school community are not empowered, it is very difficult for them to empower the children in turn.

With regard to parents and what has been said about voluntary contributions, I can only agree. The Labour Party tabled a Bill which aimed to abolish voluntary contributions because, as the National Parents Council has said, the relationship between many parents and the school system is financial or transactional. It is based on money. Far too many of the conversations parents have with schools, with teachers and with principals are about money. Parents' associations become fundraising bodies. Parents are asked if they have brought in the voluntary contribution, the book money or the swimming money. Are parents of lesser means then less or more likely to hang around the school gate? Are they less or more likely to respond to that type of communication from the school? Are they less or more likely to go to the parent-teacher meeting if they are going to be reminded about the voluntary contribution, the book money or the swimming money?

In fairness to the Minister and her Department, they have begun to roll out a scheme of free schoolbooks in a number of schools throughout the State. That is to be welcomed. That is the type of relationship we want to have between parents and schools because it is fundamentally about children and young people rather than about money. In Northern Ireland, one does not pay for schoolbooks. A cultural shift happens within families if they do not have to spend late August or September worrying about the school book list, getting the money to get the books and whether the school has a book rental scheme. All that is done away with because the State has made a decision, based on values, that children should not have to pay for their schoolbooks and are just given them. The Minister has decided to roll out a pilot scheme. That is to be welcomed. We want to work with her to make sure that the families of all the children in the country do not have to put their hands in their pockets to provide schoolbooks because the relationship between too many parents and the education system is about money.

When it comes to parents' associations, what is the first thing on the agenda but the fundraiser? What is the fundraiser for? It may be to keep the lights on or to keep the school running. There is a fundamental inequality in that because there are only so many schools that can raise a certain amount. There are schools in affluent areas that can raise an awful lot more money than those in disadvantaged areas, which are almost completely dependent on the Minister's Department to pay the bills. There is an inequity in that. In Finland, such things are banned but, of course, in Finland everyone has bought into the idea of funding public services properly through a progressive taxation system. In some modern social democratic countries, people think it is appalling that fundraisers are held for schools. We need to change the mentality in Ireland. It is disgusting that schools are forced to hold fundraisers. We all buy into it, turn up and spend money on the advertisements but it is appalling that schools should need fundraisers to keep them going. Parents then feel their role is to raise money for the school rather than to have proper engagement and a proper empowering discussion about the future of the school and how they can help their children, their children's classes and the entire school community to grow together in a learning environment. It comes down to bloody money.

This is progressive legislation and a move in the right direction. The Minister is facilitating the voice of students and parents and that is to be welcomed. However, within the broader discussion we hope to have through a citizens' assembly on education, it must be recognised the financial transactional relationship between parents and schools has to go. The Minister can imagine the humiliation if one does not have the money and one's child comes back from school with a voluntary contribution envelope. What does one say to one's child? It is just humiliating. Education is supposed to be the great leveller, the great enabler and the great liberator. How can one be liberated when it feels that whenever one receives a communication from the school one must be embarrassed because one is being asked for money which, because of one's circumstances, whether temporary or permanent, one just does not have?

It is just wrong but we have got it into our heads that this is what we have to do and that we have to raise funds for the local school. It is wrong and we should make a collective political decision that it is wrong. While it cannot happen immediately, we must move to a position where, culturally and politically, we will have got it into our heads that the school system will be funded to such a degree that schools will not have to hold fundraisers and can actually talk about education. Imagine what a mind-blowing experiment it would be to empower parents to talk about education rather than money. I know what it is like to be the person on the far side of the desk. I know what it is like to be the person sending out reminders about the book money or the swimming money. One would rather talk to the parents about anything other than money.

Let us go back to the positive elements for a second because it is not good enough for political representatives and Oireachtas Members to come in here pretending that we have all the answers while the Minister is doing nothing, which is what a lot of political over and back is about. What has the Minister done? She has introduced this legislation. She said she would and she is doing it. What else has she done? She has ensured the student voice is at the heart of the leaving certificate process. Not only was the voice there but it was listened to. The students were saying they needed choice and the Minister delivered that, which is to her credit. She has also said that she is serious about the constitutional convention or citizens' assembly on education. Let us work towards that and have a proper discussion about the nature of funding and about where the power lies, because far too much of it lies with the patron bodies. What else has she done? She has worked with us to ensure that a pilot free books scheme will be rolled out. I believe this has been expanded from 51 schools to twice that number. We are moving towards a meeting of minds.

When we pass this legislation, which we hope to table amendments to, to force the agenda around voluntary contributions and this transactional relationship, we need to move into the space of having a citizens' assembly. Government and Opposition can collectively come to a conclusion we have to move beyond the hand-in-the-pocket way of running our school system. The conversation should be about the betterment, empowerment and potential of the child and how parents, teachers and school communities can work together to achieve that. We want to work with the Minister and will do our best to enhance the Bill, but we want to see the citizens' assembly happening as soon as possible.

2:47 pm

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I will speak in support of the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill. I see it as positive legislation. It puts a legal onus on schools to have a student-parent charter devised, published and available for the school community. That is a good thing. The main focus of this will improve the level of engagement and communication in the school community by inviting feedback, comments and observations from students and parents. There will be an onus on schools to consult students and parents on all their plans and policies and to chat with them about activities and initiatives the school wishes to undertake. A lot of this is already happening. It is great to see it in law but, in my sixteen years as a teacher before I had the honour of being elected to Dáil Éireann, I saw this happen every year. We need to acknowledge as we speak in favour of the Bill that this is largely happening. The Minister acknowledged that today. The Bill sets it out in law, which is where it should exist.

Parents are recognised in the Constitution as the primary educator of the child. Not every constitution recognises that and it is a positive. This is another piece of the legal framework that positions parents as the key stakeholders in the child's education and gives them a central role in the school community so they are not just called in to the principal's office, as other speakers have said, because of a late contribution of arts and crafts money or swimming money or for a disciplinary issue and, instead, are part of decision-making and policy formation and so there is a greater role for parents beyond fundraising. They have wanted that for years and this sets it out. It has been happening for years and this formalises it.

Section 28 deals with standardised grievance procedures. I was glad the Minister referenced vexatious complaints in her contribution. The Teaching Council is the professional body tasked with investigating complaints against teachers. That is right and there is no profession that should not be subject to scrutiny at times. There are bad people in teaching. The vast majority of people I trained with in Mary Immaculate College in 2006 were there because they enjoyed working with children in education and were passionate about what they did. That is the experience I have seen in most scenarios, whether people are in the latter years of teaching or are new entrants to the profession. It is important there be a body to weed out bad practice, which exists in all professions, unfortunately. In the academic year 2018-2019, there were 39 fitness to practise complaints about teachers made to the Teaching Council. Five were struck out because they were unsubstantiated, had no supporting documents and a few, incredibly, were not signed off and had no name on them. That is atrocious. I was appalled to hear that. It should not go that far.

People say teachers have the benefit of holidays and that is true. It is a nice, stable job and a fabulous career. There are many reasons people look at our profession with envy, but the one thing teachers need is not chalk or whiteboard markers. It is our reputation. That can be taken away in an instant, and when it is gone, it is gone forever. Even a bit of smoke about a certain guy or girl being referred to the Teacher Council can be hugely damaging to that individual as a classroom teacher, special educational needs teacher or someone who want to progress within the profession. The Minister needs to continue to have oversight and ensure only the real cases for complaint get to the council. There is a vexatious element in everything and that needs to be weeded out.

I hope the Minister will forgive me for referencing some schools in County Clare and their needs. She has been very good recently to come out and visit some of them. She has also met one or two of them on Zoom and has been good enough in the Chamber and around Dublin to meet and engage with me on them. Cratloe National School has applied for a minor extension to its general purpose hall costing in the region of €98,000. There will be construction workers on site in September developing an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit. They feel that, for a low cost, it makes sense to get the general purpose hall right while construction is happening on site.

St. Tola's National School in Shannon is developing and growing year on year. I was delighted last week to see a sanctioned developing school post there. The school has a need for additional space beyond classrooms, namely, a general purpose hall. There is an application pending with the Department on that. St. Tola's National School has a fabulous initiative getting under way in September with a mulitdisability class. It is not something I encountered often in my years teaching. There are only a handful in the country. The school is pioneering it in the county. It will need two additional SNAs to do that. I have sent a lot of correspondence into the Department and I hope it can be sanctioned before September.

St. Senan's National School in Shannon has an application for a new school building. This school is called, strangely, Shannon Airport 1 National School. It was one of the first schools in County Clare built at the time Shannon was taking off. It is a fabulous school but the building is not fabulous. It has been costed that the remedial works required would be far more significant than a new building. That is with the Department and I hope the Minister can look at it.

The Minister kindly met Ennis Educate Together National School on Zoom recently. A new site is being looked at for that school, either where it currently sits as a complex of prefabs or across the road at Our Lady's Hospital. We would love to see that progress. St. Joseph's Secondary School in Spanish Point has an application before the Minister for a physical education laboratory and equipment store. That school is leading the way in physical education and we want to see that approved. I think it is imminent, in fact.

The Minister visited Clonmoney National School recently, where she heard music and watched kids playing hurling in the AstroTurf area. Their argument, which could be repeated for any school in the country, is that year on year they are being approved for bits of accommodation but there is not a holistic view on how it should happen. When they get an extension, it is eating into their playing space where the kids go at lunchtime. They want the Minister, the Department and the building officials to engage with them on something broader in that regard.

I thank the Minister for everything she is doing in the Department. She has grasped the nettle and taken the good and the bad on. She is doing a great job and I fully support the Bill.

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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We, like a lot of people have said, would welcome anything that improves engagement between schools and parents and students. I am fairly sure my parents would have liked a lot less interaction with the school and I possibly have that sense with my own young fella. That is generally related to us rather than the school being the difficulty.

I recognise there may be a need for this to be widened out to include other stakeholders such as staff. It would be remiss of me not to deal with our amendments on the voluntary contribution. It is a misnomer and it can be a huge cost on families already under severe pressure. It is about the terminology we use. We are a long way removed from the period of free education.

A wider audit of schools is required. I have spoken here many times about how we all come to education from a different place and have different family support structures and how we need a holistic intervention system from birth. That is before we get into the issues relating to special education, teaching allocations and all that.

All of these issues need to be examined. As Deputies, we all deal with issues relating to children in our constituencies who fall outside particular areas and cannot necessarily access primary and secondary schools and other issues that impact on their ability to choose a school. There are specific issues relating to school transport. We sometimes find an Irish solution whereby we can get around a corner but we need a holistic audit of the issues. I recognise that we cannot always deliver for every person but we need a system that at least takes into account their needs and works on that basis.

We should use this opportunity to deal with some of the issues that have dogged us all for a long time. We need a complete overhaul and audit of the supports and interventions available. Some of them may need to be delivered as part of a community-type approach that involves all the agencies, State and otherwise, and that has the school entirely centred within it.

2:57 pm

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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For the benefit of the next speaker, who may wish to make his or her way to the Chamber, I do not intend to take the full 20 minutes allocated to me.

I like this Bill. A large portion of what it seeks to do is to provide for better communication between students, parents, teachers and school staff, as well as embedding the student voice in every level of our educational system. My colleagues in the Social Democrats and I welcome it. However, I greatly worry that there is an appalling lack of self-scrutiny from the Department when it comes to better communication and transparency with stakeholders, including education leaders, students and parents. There is a danger of hypocrisy in that regard.

We are in a much better position now to appreciate the value and worth of having students' voices at the table. Prior to becoming a Deputy, I worked with schools via the Trinity access programme. Much of my work focused on supporting students to take on leadership and autonomy within their schools, helping them to ensure their voice was heard and aiding them in developing ideas they had to enrich their school experience, both for their own benefit and that of their peers, present and future. The evidence demonstrates, as does my own experience, that just knowing they will be listened to and heard has knock-on effects for learning, self-confidence and teacher-student relationships.

Over the past 18 months, with the closure of school buildings, disruptions to teaching and uncertainty around examinations, students' voices and experiences have been incredibly important. They have led us through this time, especially in regard to the State examinations, but we should always have been listening to them. I take this opportunity to pay credit and homage to the students who have been unrelenting over the past 18 months in holding us as legislators to account, both Opposition and Government, in terms of their experiences and rights and how they were assessed and examined. It has truly been remarkable and we cannot ever unsee it. In particular, I commend the continued work of the Irish Second-Level Students Union as part of the advisory group on planning for State examinations. We need student voices to be facilitated and firmly embedded at every level, both locally and at national policy level. Currently, while there is a student voice present at the table, which we are all grateful for and have seen the benefit of, it is only one voice at a table of many. We may need to look at how we can broaden the voices of students in discussions on issues affecting them. Indeed, the old line, "Nothing about us without us", comes to mind when considering the importance of the student voice.

In 2019, the Trinity access programme conducted research that involved gathering 3,863 student surveys. It found that first-year students in secondary schools self-reported the highest scores when it came to student voice, while fifth-year students were significantly lower than all other year groups on this point. While one might expect students to grow in confidence and self-esteem over the years, the research found that the sense of a student voice did not naturally grew over time in secondary school but, rather, contracted inward. Research set out in Jigsaw's report, The National Study of Youth Mental Health in Ireland, supports this, with first years reporting the highest self-esteem and life satisfaction, whereas sixth-year students had the lowest levels of optimism. We need to empower young people to feel they have a sense of control, ownership and optimism about their future. This needs to happen at all levels of their educational journey. It is not a coincidence that students in sixth year have the lowest level of optimism given the attention and stress that is placed on the manner in which they are assessed for the leaving certificate. That has implications for mental health, well-being and general life satisfaction for students. We cannot separate that issue out when developing a student and parent charter.

Recent research from the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, examining the experiences of students and teachers at Educate Together second level schools highlighted the important contributions students can make when it comes to decision-making at school level and how this leads to students having greater ownership of their schools and schools being more responsive to local needs. The focus in this Bill on better communication between students, parents and schools in terms of decision-making, complaints procedures and general information on what can be expected from the school is undoubtedly a worthwhile development. There are benefits for the many schools in which this is already happening. I urge the Minister to ensure the Department is part of this culture of active listening, which is necessary if the aims of the Bill are to be achieved. How many times have we heard from school leaders and parents that important information from the Department came late on a Friday evening or just before the school broke up for holidays? This was a particular feature during the 18 months of the pandemic, when people in schools were waiting with bated breath for information to come from the Department. That information inevitably came after 4 p.m. on a Friday. This issue has been raised many times in the Chamber. It reflects a corrosive culture that has been damaging to the relationship between the Department, schools and parents. I hope we can address it as we move forward.

The past year and a half has been exceptional in many ways but that failure of communication is a well-established practice. The Department and the Minister cannot remove themselves from the culture they are aiming to foster between schools, parents and students. The Department is not a bystander without power or impact. For example, the details of the summer education scheme came too late from the Department for many schools that wanted to participate. The Department was warned about this happening and the information being needed as early as possible. Parents and students, particularly students in special schools, have again been left wanting. The media and Government spin is that one third of all special schools will run the summer programme, not that two thirds of children in special schools will not have access to it. That situation has arisen largely because of the failure by the Department to communicate the necessary information to schools on time. It is a really perverse form of public relations spin to say that one third of special schools will run a summer programme when we all know that means two thirds of schools will not participate. It is very wrong and it is something on which we can do better.

The Department of Education cannot act as if it has no responsibility when it comes to listening and communicating. This Bill cannot be a "do as I say, not as I do" attempt at legislation. How well the Department listens, operates and communicates is as important as the provisions this Bill is seeking to strengthen. I urge the Minister to reflect on that. The Bill seeks to instil a greater culture of listening between schools, students, parents and guardians. I respectfully ask that such a culture extend beyond that to include the Department. The schools for which it has responsibility need to be heard and supported by the Department in the same manner that those schools should listen to and support their students and staff.

Will the Minister indicate whether dedicated funding will be provided for any additional costs that may arise out of the provisions in the Bill, including mediation, training and additional administrative duties? Stakeholders are worried about facing additional burdens without corresponding resources. Reading through the Bill made me think of the assessment of needs process. As we all know, assessments should start within three months of receipt of an application and finish within a further three months. In fact, fewer than 10% of assessments are completed on time. We cannot allow a similar situation to arise in this instance. There is little point in introducing mandatory compliance if we know it cannot be achieved.

We all know language matters and I have grave concerns about how the Bill is couched in neoliberal terminology. We must resist any attempts to codify public services such as education. I cannot emphasise enough that our schools are not service providers, and parents, guardians and students are not customers. Far from it. The previous Minister for Education referred to school charters as being akin to customer service charters. Education is about empowerment, certainly in a republic, not a business transaction. Education is a public good and citizens of the State have a right to education. The language in this Bill should reflect that. Issues will inevitably arise and they must be dealt with appropriately, not through the lens of a disgruntled customer but in the context of students as rights holders and with all parties respected and treated as equals.

Let us not forget the 210 children who require but cannot get a place in a special school or special classes and are currently in receipt of home tuition, as reported in The Irish Timessome days ago. What will this Bill do for those individuals and families?

Will it treat them as disappointed customers or individuals who are not able to access fully their rights? Will it have any impact at all? It is an infringement of their human rights as citizens of the republic and that needs to be addressed very quickly. In this regard, I would like greater powers to be provided to the Ombudsman for Children. We must respect the expertise and experience of the office of the ombudsman, which should be empowered to work with schools when deemed necessary and ensure that recommendations are followed as directed.

A Barnardos survey on back to school costs in 2020 found that 65% of parents of children in primary schools were asked for a voluntary contribution, while 74% of parents of secondary school students were asked for a contribution. Although we do not know the extent of voluntary contributions, the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association estimated that they bring in €45 million annually. We are told that there is free primary school and secondary school education, but that figure reveals the fallacy of that lie. Education is free at the point of access to education, after which massive pressure is placed on parents, many of whom do not have the means to afford schoolbooks or school outings. That brings an inequality into the education system that has ramifications beyond the school gate.

The Bill originally sought for schools to be obliged to provide information relating to voluntary contributions to parents and the Department of Education, such as the amount collected annually and a breakdown of expenditure. This information would then be made available online by the Department of Education. The Bill was amended at the last hour during its passage through in the Seanad in 2019 by the then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh. That small but crucial amendment removed transparency relating to the reliance on and use by schools of the so-called voluntary contributions.

Within the Constitution is a commitment that the State shall provide for free primary education but we know this is not the case. Every year, schools across the country raise funds to keep the lights on or to get much-needed laptops, technology or other essentials. A large part of this is parents and voluntary contributions. The level of technology inequality that exists was revealed during the pandemic and if it was not for parents, schools and related organisations such as the Trinity access programme, for which I previously worked, that work tirelessly to get laptops into the hands of students, the level of inequality would have been significantly greater. That should not be what education is about within a republic.

If we continue to let voluntary contributions be swept under the rug - I refer to the practice within the Department as a whole; not individual schools - then we will never know the extent to which we are failing our commitment to provide free education to children and young people. We do not yet know the extent of the underfunding as all we know for sure is that parents and guardians have to pick up the tab, with many getting into debt in order to cover all the costs. I will never forget the phone calls I got from people who were raising funds just to keep the heating on in schools. It is an extraordinary indictment of the State that parents have to raise funds to get the heating on in a school during winter. I welcome the Bill but much more conversation and scrutiny is needed and I look forward to time being made available for that on later Stages.

I and many other Members present in the Chamber took part in a discussion yesterday on the future of education, organised by the Children’s Rights Alliance. I refer to Kai, Darren and Sarahann, the youth representatives who took part in the event and asked very probing questions of us as public representatives. If the Bill helps to foster increased dialogue and communication with students such as them, we can only welcome it. However, we can go much further in the context of a student and parents charter, not just in the realms of education but beyond. Having student voices and those of young people present in our discussions at all levels of society can benefit us. In the discussion yesterday, the Children's Rights Alliance asked Oireachtas Members how the scope of the student voice can be widened, whether that be in the context of education or access to basic services or just in terms of what it means to have a voice for students and young people in this republic. My response was that, having spoken to the Irish Second-Level School Union and the students who engaged with us throughout the past 18 months on their learning experience and journey and how that was infringed by the pandemic and the absence of leadership at all levels of society, we need to lower the voting age to allow those young people to have a substantial engagement in society and then their voices will truly be listened to. In the meantime, the Bill is a good start. We have a way to go and I look forward to working with the Minister in order to deliver what is needed.

3:07 pm

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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I was momentarily confused when Deputy Gannon mentioned neoliberal terminology and referenced "service providers" and "customers", so I had a quick check through the Bill and neither of those terms are used within it. To confirm, I believe we are discussing the same thing.

I thank the Minister. Although the Bill dates from the previous Government, the pandemic has made us look afresh at the idea of what schools are. They are much more than the four walls of the classroom or the built environment, although those things and the quality of them are, of course, very important. However, when we are discussing schools, we are discussing communities and that extends inside and outside the school gate, not just from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. but much later than that. The job of a teacher does not finish at 4 p.m, just as the role of a parent as an educator does not only begin at 4 p.m.

Over the past 16 to 18 months, the pandemic has forced us to consider homeschooling, blended learning and the role of the parent in providing education as never before. It made us explore in a new way the possibilities offered by technology, as well as the challenges for and additional asks on the resources of teachers. Please God, in September we will get back to a more normal school environment. However, before I look at the specific provisions of the Bill, I make the point that this is the time to consider the lessons of the pandemic and using the school community, staff and maybe the inspectorate - there may be a role in the context of providing in-service in this regard - to glean some of those lessons we have learned. I would like the Government to take that on as an initiative. Let us not lose those lessons that were forced on us.

I welcome the Bill, which is relatively straightforward. I think all present understand its objectives. I very much welcome its proactive element. The Minister acknowledged that the 1998 Act was very reactive in terms of grievance processes. One will very often get a much better outcome both for parents and the wider school community if one engages in that process proactively at an earlier date, so I very much welcome that aspect of the Bill.

It sets down clear parameters relating to providers but we are somewhat blind in this regard as it will be necessary to see those guidelines set out in greater detail in order to ascertain whether they are doing a good job or otherwise. I understand that we need to engage with the stakeholders before those lines can be developed. I emphasise that this has to help boards of management. They are made up of people who voluntarily give their time to aid the State in the running of schools, so it cannot be an additional burden. We have to make sure the charter is streamlined in such a way that it helps boards of management in the running of schools. That is a very important consideration.

To turn to the specific detail of the Bill, I welcome the amendment the Minister proposes to make to the Title of the Bill. I was not going to speak to it. The inclusion of the full school community in the Title of the Bill is very welcome. I refer to the definition of "parent" in the Bill. Is it wide enough? Does it include guardians in terms of the charter being drawn up? Does it provide for relationships that are more difficult to define, such as a new a new partner within the relationship at home? It would be helpful if the Bill helped school communities to understand how they should interact with those partners.

Section 27B(3)(d) relates to "the procedures to be established by a board under section 20 for the purposes of informing students and their parents of matters relating to the operation and performance of the school." The word "performance" rings an alarm bell for me in the context of how that performance is defined. One thing the pandemic definitely taught us is that schools do much more than deliver academic content. They also care for the well-being of their students. There are schools that are outstanding in terms of their performance, the service they provide to communities and how they nurture the children in their care who may not have the best academic outcomes in the world.

When I see the word "performance", it always gives me pause for thought. I do not want to end up in a league table situation.

I welcome section 27B(3)(j)as a provision. It is about the idea that data should be provided on grievances that happen within the school and that it should be anonymised. Certainly, we have to have that transparency built into the charter. However, we also have to accept that in the reality of a small school and a community setting, anonymised data will not exist in that way. We might write it in a Bill but it does not exist in reality. Therefore, perhaps that is something that we should look at when we come to Committee Stage.

Section 27C(b), (e) and (f) are really about the student voice and the voice of the wider school community. I welcome that. It is one of the things that makes this legislation very welcome and progressive.

I join other Members in praising the role of the student voice in the last 18 months, and in particular, the Irish Second-Level Students' Union. It has been outstanding in how it has put its point across. The Minister has also done a very good job in responding to the issues it has raised and the challenges involved.

Finally, I wish to state that we must be mindful of our teachers in this. The move to blended learning or home schooling has been difficult. It is not just specific to teachers. For all of us who have been working from home, it has been very difficult to define when we are working and when we are not. We must be mindful of that. Of course, we want students, teachers and parents to communicate in a much better way, but parents are normally ready to communicate after work and teachers should only be communicating during their working hours. We need to be mindful of the need to strike a balance between those things and to respect the right of our teachers to disconnect.

I welcome the Bill. I think it is good legislation. I look forward to supporting it in its passage through the Dáil.

3:17 pm

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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The next slot is Sinn Féin and the speaker is Deputy Violet-Anne Wynne.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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On a point of information for the previous Deputy, who said the language that I used was not in the Bill, it was actually introduced on First Stage by the then Minister, Deputy Joe McHugh, which I referenced when I mentioned the language.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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Thank you.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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The Deputy was able to point out language as being important.


Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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Thank you, Deputy. You can-----

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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When the Minister introduced the Bill, he used that phrase.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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If the Deputy is not aware what happened on First Stage, that is up to him.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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Sorry, Deputy-----


Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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He introduced it that way. He should not make comparisons like that. Do your homework.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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The next speaker is Deputy Violet-Anne Wynne.

Photo of Violet-Anne WynneViolet-Anne Wynne (Clare, Sinn Fein)
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This Bill essentially seeks to address the unused legislative powers under section 28 of the Education Act 1998 that gives the Minister powers to intervene and have more of an active role in resolving disputes and complaints that are lodged by parents in respect of schools and their operations. It stipulates that the Minister will engage with stakeholders and prescribe procedures for dealing with such complaints.

The Bill is also welcome as it details and provides for the construction of a charter between parents and students and their respective schools. It provides for the statutory oversight of the Minister and her Department in the process of devising this charter in which the school boards have to consult with various stakeholders in their preparation, including parents of students, parents associations, principals, students, staff, patrons and student councils. Generally speaking, that is a great call. Hopefully, it will remedy certain issues that were being reported across national media over the last few years, including ambiguities and pressure around so-called "voluntary" school cost contributions which have effectively pitted schools against parents and created unnecessary animosity between the two. Why? The schools are not resourced properly by the Department and as such need supplementary income from parents to cover the day-to-day running of them. Parents who cannot easily afford this voluntary payment feel judged, pressured and uncomfortable with the request. I can relate to that. I completely understand it and fully believe it should not be allowed to continue. It is just one of the issues that a student and parent charter would clarify and rectify.

I appreciate that the programme for Government includes a commitment to enact the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill. However, it would be remiss of me to not mention the distinct lack of progress on other legislation in respect of education. I find it hard to stomach the fact that we can stand here in these Chambers and discuss a Bill like this when so many other Government commitments to equitable, accessible, local, integrated education remain grossly overlooked. I refer specifically to the Ennis Educate Together school. I cannot help but mention the inhumane pressure that the principal of the school is being put under. The misallocation of DEIS band, the refusal to provide long-term accommodation and the lack of supports for children with ASD are just a few of the numerous challenges that the school faces on a daily basis. The charter is a welcome development indeed, but it does not compare to the emergency situation of human rights negligence and the health the safety nightmare that is occurring at the Ennis Educate Together school.

This Bill is necessary, but what about the wide array of other legislation that has passed through the Houses but has yet to be fully enacted or commenced? I believe it is ultimately counterproductive to bring forward more legislation when there are copious amounts of law yet to be implemented. The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, from 17 years ago, for example, is among other existing legislation that is yet to bear fruit and benefit the educational experiences of children on this island.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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To be honest, I am worried about this legislation and what it is trying to achieve. In theory, the principles of having proper grievance procedures, having a charter for parents and students, having proper information that is available about how the school operates, its funding and where the funding goes, are not bad ideas. However, I worry that it essentially lets the Government off the hook and brings with it an internal focus, wherein the school board and the staff are held responsible for failings which are actually the failings of the Government. If you were to ask school communities - parents, teachers or, most importantly, pupils - what their list of priorities were and what rights they would like to have in terms of their education, I strongly suspect the sort of rights which are not going to be in this charter, because they are actually the responsibility of Government, would be the things they would be asking for.

They would be asking for the right to have class sizes that are not the highest in Europe and where the quality of education is seriously undermined by excessive class sizes. They would certainly be asking about the right to have a proper school building and not to be in a temporary building for years. They would ask about the right to proper equipment - computer equipment and other equipment and facilities in their school. They would ask for proper sports and recreational facilities, including sports halls and amenities. They would ask for the right to services where they need them. They would ask for the right to SNAs and the special education resources that they need. The might ask for the right to a properly-ventilated classroom. They might ask for the right of teachers to have funded professional development to deal with issues like special educational needs and emotional behaviours. They might ask for the right to have hot school meals. They might ask for the right to have free school transport and free school books. They might ask for the right not to have to fundraise in order to pay for basic things within the school, or be forced to make voluntary contributions to provide those things and spend huge amounts of time fundraising for things that, in fact, should be funded by the Department of Education and the Government.

They might ask for the right not to have religious patron bodies sell off their school facilities while the Department washes its hands of it, saying it has nothing to do with it because, even though it funds the schools in question, a religious school patron body can just sell off sports facilities, as has been done at Clonkeen secondary school. They might ask for the right not to be put through an archaic and stressful examination system such as the leaving certificate system, which dictates to a substantial degree their life chances, opportunities and choices, putting extraordinary stress on them and their parents. This system is unnecessary and archaic and should be done away with because it is simply a way of gatekeeping access to higher and further education, which should be a right in itself.

Those are some of the rights I suspect people would ask for. They are all rights that the Government should be obliged to grant. That is what the charter should include. I am not saying the other matters in the Bill are matters of inconsequence but all the focus is on internal responsibility for structures that exist. We have the Teaching Council to deal with grievance procedures and complaints against teachers. We have school boards of management, parent-teacher associations and so on. As even a Government Deputy said, most schools are doing what this Bill is requiring them to do anyway. Therefore, the problem is not teachers. By and large, we have fantastic teachers. The problem is not school staff or school secretaries. School secretaries were rightly mentioned earlier because the ability of a school to deliver on many internal matters concerning parents and teachers depends on them. Many of them have to sign on to the dole during the summer because the Government will not give them a proper contract of employment.

I worry about where this is going. Having spoken to several teachers, I have learned they are concerned. I suspect this is the reason for Deputy Gannon's reference to neoliberal models and so on. Even Deputy Ó Cathasaigh was alluding to these when he spoke about performance. The main concern has to be that, because of the removal of the responsibility the Department and Minister should have regarding school students and the placing of responsibility within schools' internal structures, schools will end up in a league table situation. That is a significant concern. The measure encourages competition and performance targets for schools. It pits schools against one another in meeting targets. Inevitably, if education is pushed in that direction, as it has been in England, where similar charters were set up very much according to a Tory neoliberal idea of pitting schools against one another in a competitive process, the schools that will lose out will be those that inevitably and invariably lose out, namely those in more disadvantaged areas catering for families with less income and that are less able to meet the demands or targets the charters oblige them to meet but which they do not have the resources to meet because they are not given them by central government. We are concerned about this, the logic behind it and where that logic leads. The Government should focus far more on giving people the right to a high-quality education, with minimum standards in class sizes, which should be substantially smaller than those we now have, with quality school buildings and without the shocking circumstances that certainly persist in many of the schools in my area. In my last minute or so, I will mention some of these circumstances.

We have a system in which it is recognised that an area needs a certain number of schools. There is a democratic process whereby people decide what patron body their school will have, be it Educate Together, a Gaelscoil or another. The school is recognised, yet school after school in my area does not know where it is going to be located.

Debate adjourned.

Sitting suspended at 3.25 p.m. and resumed at 4.36 p.m.