Thursday, 19 May 2022
Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2020 Report: Motion
That Dáil Éireann shall take note of the Report of the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science entitled "Report on the Detailed Scrutiny of the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2020", copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 4th March, 2022.
I doubt that I need all the time allotted. The Minister knows this issue well. I introduced this Bill in November 2020. The Minister did not oppose the amendments to the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 contained in it and asked that Second Stage be taken after 12 months to facilitate her Department doing the requisite evaluation of the impact of what my amendment intended to do. We had deliberations at the joint committee and witnesses appeared from the equality and education spheres who felt that there was no need for the amendment. There was one dissenting voice on the basis that the provision for providing potentially 25% of places to the children or grandchildren of past pupils is rarely used and, therefore, there is no need to omit it from the Act. The question from me and others at the committee was: why does the provision exist if it is never used?
The Minister knows how strongly my party, the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and I feel about this part of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act. I cannot speak to the genesis, motivations or lobbying behind it, but I know that it was sought by a particular sector of the education field to facilitate certain schools that wanted to keep the royal bloodline succession in their schools by allowing 25% of places to be held over for the children or grandchildren of past pupils. Of course it is discriminatory. A person's parents or grandparents may not have gone to secondary school. It disproportionately affects members of the Traveller community and people who are not from the immediate area and whose parents or grandparents went to primary or secondary school in another area of the country. People who are living in County Kerry who are not originally from Kerry would be affected by this. People who are not from the country would be affected. I was doing research on my own family and it turned out that none of my grandparents went to secondary school, so it would appear that I would have been at a disadvantage if this legislation had been in vogue when I was trying to access second level places back in the day.
There is agreement from the Minister and parties across the House that this element of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act is unnecessary, elitist, divisive, and is causing problems. It is not just being utilised by the fee-paying sector, although I suspect it really wanted it. It is used across the board in the non-fee-paying sector too. In certain areas where there is oversubscription and families are trying to access a school place, they find themselves at a disadvantage if they are not from that area, because they did not attend the school themselves.
I know the Minister believes that education is the great liberator. It is the one thing that will lift people out of difficult situations and put them onto a new path. The one thing that can bring people through poverty and lift them more than anything else is the beauty and availability of education. I have seen through my life the effect it has had on families and individuals. All barriers that are placed between an individual and access to education need to be rooted out. To place a barrier by allowing more access rights in any situation to somebody whose grandfather or grandmother went to a particular school does violence to the idea of a republic.
I think people forget what a republic actually means. It is not the absence of a monarchy. It means that absolutely every single citizen of this State has the same rights and the same opportunities, no matter who their parents or their grandparents were. This amendment of the Act does violence and injustice to that philosophy.
I want to ask the Minister a number of questions. It has been suggested to me that the entirety of the Act should possibly have been directed to the Data Protection Commissioner because it potentially comes under section 36 of the GDPR Act. The Minister might speak to that again at a later point or forward me her Department's opinion on it. The main thing I want to get from today's session is how we can move this to becoming law. It sometimes frustrates Opposition Deputies and I dare say Government backbenchers when they have a piece of legislation they have drafted and crafted in good faith and there is agreement around it, when it comes from a place of decency and equality and they really want to see it get over the line and become law rather than flounder through red tape or whatever. I believe what we are trying to do here is ethical, right and just. We went through the proper process, put it forward for selection in the lottery for Private Member's Bills. It was taken up and debated. The Minister asked that it be delayed for 12 months and it was. It is on Second Stage now. Can the Minister, the Government or those who have influence over these things allow some time to be given in these Houses for this to become law? If it were to happen, it would be a good reflection of what we can achieve together for children in the education system in this place we call a republic. It should not matter who their parents or their grandparents were.
Imagine this scenario. A Ukrainian child arrives in this country seeking refuge and then has difficulty accessing a second level place because the person whose father or grandfather went to the school has more of a right than that child has. That would be a preposterous scenario but it is what we have in law. I ask the Minister again, if we are all agreed on this, how can we make it happen?
I would like to begin by acknowledging and thanking the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science for its detailed report on the Bill, particularly noting the committee's emphasis on ensuring equity and access in the admissions policies of Irish schools. This ambition is shared by the Department, which commits to creating an education system in which everyone has access to an excellent education that is inclusive of all, irrespective of belief system, race, ethnicity, class, culture, gender, language or ability.
As Deputies are aware, the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 was signed into law in July 2018. The overall objective of the Act is to provide a 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. It requires all schools to set out clearly the admissions criteria that are used for parents and prospective parents.
The Act provides for schools to explicitly state in the school's admission policy that it 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 policy, the exemptions applicable to such schools under equality legislation. The Act also sets out certain criteria that schools cannot take into account when deciding on an application for admission, such as consideration of a student's academic ability, skills or aptitude, consideration of a parent's occupation, financial status, academic ability, skills or aptitude, apart from exceptions provided by the Act, as a consideration for the offer of a school place.
In January 2020, certain sections of the Act were commenced in order to be operational in time for the admission processes for the 2021-2022 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. These new admission policies which have been approved by patrons after consultation with parents of children attending the school, are now published on individual school websites. These policies applied for admission to school for the first time last September. As such, the operation of this Act and its provisions remains in relatively early stages. Schools have worked extremely hard in developing, consulting on and drafting these new policies. The Act requires that any subsequent changes to a school's admission policy requires the approval process to be undertaken again before the admission policy could be published by the school.
The Bill proposes to delete section 62(10)(b) of the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018. The section that the Bill proposes to delete allows schools, and this is an important consideration, if they so desire, 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. This was used in recognition of the ties which parents, grandparents and broader families may have to schools. The use of this provision is subject to the discretion of the school, and it should also be noted that this criteria has no impact on schools where there is no oversubscription.
The Department sought information from management bodies of schools in relation to the use and impact of this provision in respect of school admissions for September 2021. The responses received from schools indicated that there are a minimal number of schools nationally that use the full 25% provided for in the Act. At primary level, 907 schools responded to the survey, and of these only 4.7% of them use this criterion. At post-primary 537 responded with 19% applying this provision. However it is worthwhile to note that only 17 of these schools used the full 25% allowed for by the Act.
The joint education committee has made a number of recommendations in its report, which will be considered fully by my Department. The committee recommends establishing an expert group to review and compile data on school admission policies. I am supportive of this recommendation. I am also very mindful that the current admission processes of schools is relatively new and has only taken effect for the first time for admission to the 2020-2021 school year. To be effective, a longer timeframe is required for the Department and expert group, as recommended by the committee, to undertake a review and compilation of data to provide an opportunity for a greater analysis and evaluation of the measure set against a number of school admission cycles. This would also avoid burdening schools with having to amend school admission policies so soon after they were implemented for the 2020-2021 school year. I look forward to engaging with the committee further on the nature of such a review as recommended.
I thank Deputy Ó Ríordáin for his work on this. He has dealt with what I am going to discuss, and a lot more eloquently than I will. What we are talking about is straightforward. It is education as the great leveller, to use Deputy Ó Ríordáin's words. We are talking about ensuring that there is an equal playing field in respect of access. I welcome the fact that there has been an element of analysis and it looks like there is going to be a further element of analysis. As for every piece of legislation, due diligence should be done. However, I think we have to get some sort of timeline and look at the possibility of actually introducing these provisions.
They are not going to impact on every school. We get that even from the numbers the Minister has provided. We know that. It is not about every school. It is the fact that there are schools that are able to use this restriction or obstacle, this 25%, for those with family connections. On some level that sounds all right but in some cases it stops people who do not have a previous connection to an area from going to a school that they live incredibly close to.
Beyond that, there can be a difficulty if someone's parents have not gone to a school. Siblings might not be able to go to the same school if they do not have the connections.
There are many issues here. If we are talking about education as a means of giving people the ability to break the poverty cycle, we have to realise that the main issue is much broader. We know it is not just about access to schools and dealing with fees and third level costs; we know a serious amount of intervention needs to occur at a very early stage in a child's life. There must be a particular emphasis on pre-primary and primary schooling. However, that is for another day. I am blue in the face talking about early interventions that are needed, particularly for communities and families, to make a real difference.
What we have is inequity in that certain people are given an advantage. It also means certain schools have the ability to game the system to ensure they get who they want. No school is going to say it will refuse someone on the basis of their being a Traveller or on the basis of academic ability or a disability, but a school has the ability to ensure the continuity of the old school-tie network or whatever term people want to use. We need to cast that into the bin alongside all the other inequities we lived with throughout the history of the State and before that. It is very straightforward; there is something that could be and in some cases is an impediment to some pupils in gaining access to education. It could entail a school in close proximity. Long before we get into the issues in the public domain, we know insufficient modelling has been done on the needs that arise owing to autism and other disabilities. A wider piece of work has not been done and unfortunately families are now dealing with absolutely dreadful circumstances in which they are not quite sure what secondary school their children will be able to attend. We all know the information existed and that kids in primary school with certain requirements will have those requirements in secondary school. It is not beyond us to put a system in play that can deal with that, no more than we need to up our game regarding workforce planning to ensure we provide all the necessary disability services and have enough occupational therapists and speech and language therapists where they are needed.
Across the board, we need significantly better modelling and planning. That is accepting there will be difficulties. We cannot just click our fingers and have perfection; however, at a minimum, we can introduce equality or equity – call it what you will – regarding the ability of people to gain access to secondary schools. We are aware that connections have been advantageous in gaining access to certain schools, both fee-paying and non-fee-paying. On one level, our report reinforces the fact that certain people, and probably many in here, have had advantages that many on the periphery have not had.
What is proposed is a very simple solution to introduce an element of equity to remove obstacles that can be put in people's way. We need to find some sort of timely means of introducing it. It is a very fair ask by Deputy Ó Ríordáin. The Minister must show it is possible and put in place a timeline; we cannot just have endless analysis. That is not to take away from the fact that some analysis is needed. Beyond that, we need to fit our work into the wider body of work that needs to be done regarding interventions for communities and families. In particular, we must invest in disadvantaged areas and communities on the periphery of society. We can play our part in ensuring that we do not reinforce, over a lifetime, the disadvantages that give people far less choice. We all know there are many bad choices that can be made and that one is more likely to make one if one has a certain postcode. We have to break the cycle. We can do so only by ensuring that we reintroduce equity, even through small moves such as the legislation we are reviewing. Beyond that, we must put in resources. If we do not, we will pay for everything and they will be an abject failure societally and economically and in the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, it will represent the continuation of many failures.
The Minister has an opportunity to move this on. It is the right thing to do. The right thing is something we could do with doing in this place at least occasionally. In addition to doing it, a wider body of work needs to be done.
I thank both Deputies for their contributions on the committee report and the broader issues related to the admissions Act. It sets out important requirements on transparency that must be adhered to in schools' admissions policies. I am conscious that the Act was commenced fully only in the past academic year.
Deputy Ó Murchú referred to the need to tackle disadvantage across society. Significant resources have been made available by the Department of Education to target disadvantage in education specifically. The Deputy will be aware that the single biggest investment in the DEIS programme was recently announced by me. Through the programme, significant resources are being made available to schools in areas with a significant level of disadvantage, to the tune of €18 million this year and rising to €32 million next year. It is very much about giving the optimum opportunity and support to all students, irrespective of their socioeconomic background or experience.
On the admissions policy, which has been raised, I am conscious that it is new. I am also conscious that all schools are required to do significant work to update their admissions policies. This has been a considerable undertaking for them. The policy has now operated for just one school cycle, namely, the 2021–22 school cycle. Even in that short time, we have been given an opportunity for some learnings, but not complete learnings. As I referred to earlier, even the information sought from the management bodies of schools on the use and impact of the provision has made for some findings. At primary level, the survey responses came from 907 schools and indicate that only 4.7% of those schools use or invoke the criterion in question. At post primary level, 537 schools responded, with 19% applying the provision.
I am conscious that the joint committee has made a recommendation, in its report, on the concept of an expert group and on that group having an opportunity to compile data that would reflect how the policy is working, specifically in respect of where, if, when and how the 25% limit is being implemented. It is clearly the view of the joint committee that there are learnings in this regard. I acknowledge that the Deputies have acknowledged the importance of having learnings. I propose that we take the opportunity to work on the joint committee's recommendation to have an expert group.
The Department of Education is happy to do that. I consider this a significant and positive way forward because it will give us an opportunity to analyse the data as they become available and make an informed judgment on how the admission policies are operating. There is an obligation on us to show we have taken informed decisions and have taken the time to inform ourselves of the operation of our schools. I propose we work with the recommendation of the joint committee for an expert group, which will work with the Department of Education in this area. I thank both Deputies for the time they have taken to engage in the important issue of schools admissions policy.
I do not know where to start with the Minister's response. I am infuriated by it. The last paragraph, in particular, I find infuriating. I am beginning to wonder why we bother. The Minister asked for 12 months to do what she has just said she now needs to start. I stood here in November 2020 asking her to take seriously that, as a matter of basic equality, somebody's father, grandfather, mother or grandmother should be irrelevant when it comes to education. The Minister asked to be given 12 months. In good faith, we gave her 12 months. What did she do with the 12 months? Now, after the education committee went through hearing after hearing with every expert who came in saying it needed to go, she comes back in and tells me we need another review and more time for another period of school admission cycles.
I ask the Minister bluntly why the private school sector clicks its fingers and gets what it wants. Why do representatives of that sector come to the Minister for Education or people close to her and say they want a new admissions Bill to make sure the royal blood line of succession continues in private schools because they want the school ties to remain, because that is what their elitism is based on? It all comes down to money, that is, the money that they have and want to keep in their schools, from the same families. That is the whole point of it. They want 25% of their school places kept over to that money and those families.
It should not matter a damn where your da went to school, or if he went. It should not matter a damn where your grandfather went to school, or if he went. This odious legislation containing this odious amendment states you have more rights to admission to a secondary school or primary school based on who your parents or grandparents are. I gave the Minister a year to sort it out and she comes back in and asks for more time and more school admission cycles.
It drives me to distraction to consider the power that the fee-paying lobby has. There is nothing they will not get if they ask for it. Proof is in this legislation. The only ones who asked for it were them. They got it and we cannot move it because we have another review. Not one expert witness came into the committee and said it needed to stay. The only argument for it to stay was that it was rarely used.
I am losing faith in this process because I went through the process of producing legislation and hoping it might be selected for debate. I was successful. The Minister asked me to give her a year and I said I would work with her on that. Did I get a phone call from the Department of Education at any point in those 12 months to talk about the admissions Bill? Of course I did not. Did the Minister seek a meeting with me to talk about the Bill in those 12 months? Of course she did not. We went through the facade of the education committee, which I prioritised in my time. The Minister brought in all these experts who prioritised their time to come in and offer their expertise on the basis for inequality which is in this Act. Then we bring it back here on a Thursday evening and the Minister tells me she needs more time and more school admission cycles.
Fundamentally, we have here proof that as long as those who want to lobby effectively for legislation to benefit them have deep pockets, it will work. The system will bend over backwards for them and when somebody identifies this as a problem, it will be reviewed to death until, hopefully, the likes of me lose faith.
For all the numerous successes I acknowledge the Minister has had in her role, this type of response on this Thursday evening in a pretty vacant Dáil Chamber makes me lose faith. The Minister has no answer as to why it should stay. She has no defence and no argument as to why one child should have a better chance of accessing school because of who their family is than another. It disproportionately hurts Travellers, those whose parents did not go to secondary school, those who do not come from the area and those who do not come from the country, yet it is stuck there in legislation because the private school sector wants it there and we will leave it there rather than use some energy to delete it.
My faith in the process is extinguished. The time the Minister is asking for now is the time I assumed she was using in the year she asked from me before this was moved on Second Stage. What was the point? What was the Minister doing in those 12 months? What was going on? Clearly, the Department does not want to change this provision and wants it to remain. Clearly, we think it is in concert and in tune with the ethics, values and vision of a republic that child A from family A has more rights because their father and grandfather went to school than child B, who has none of those advantages. I am exasperated to read a response such as that.
I do not know what difference my contribution will make or if it will make any difference. The Minister's response is an insult to me and my efforts, to the committee, to every expert who came into the committee and to the representatives of all the organisations who gave up time to attend the committee and to give presentations and analysis, every one of whom said it needed to go. It is an insult to all of them for the Minister to come in here, having had a year between November 2020 and November 2021 in which clearly the Department did nothing, and to tell me and other Deputies that she needs more time. She wants to review this amendment to death because she, I and Deputy Ó Murchú know that the private school sector gets what it wants when it clicks its fingers. That is fundamentally what this is about.
The Minister can have her review but she has lost my goodwill. When anybody asks me again about the potential for Government to work with Opposition to achieve something with ethics at its heart, I will have to tell them I am not sure if I have faith in it any more. You give good faith, and it is not afforded to you in return. You are reviewed and reviewed until you lose your good faith. All we are trying to achieve is that every child has the same opportunity.