Wednesday, 6 November 2019
Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019: Committee Stage
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 6, between lines 11 and 12, to insert the following:“(k) the procedures relating to the use of reduced timetables in the school;”.
I thank the Minister for appearing before the House. As I stated on Second Stage, I strongly support the Bill in general and welcome its return to the House. It will require schools throughout the country and the communities that surround them to collaborate to produce bespoke charters that will underpin how students, parents, teachers and schools engage with, and relate to, one another. This is a significant development in how the education system is structured and should be welcomed.
Nevertheless, I propose a number of amendments with the aim of strengthening the Bill and hope they will be received in the constructive spirit in which they have been tabled. Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 are to section 27B, a new section proposed to be inserted into the Education Act 1998. The section sets out the guiding principles and procedures to be adhered to by the Minister for Education and Skills when drafting the national guidelines that set out how individual schools' charters are drafted, who must be consulted and what must be included. Subsection (3) of the proposed new section sets out 11 paragraphs of specific matters that may be covered by the charter guidelines, including procedures for student consultation, school management structure and policies on voluntary contributions. The subsection is important because it is a list of the areas the Minister will set out as matters to be addressed in the charters eventually drawn up in schools throughout the country. With amendments Nos. 3 and 4, I propose to add two further paragraphs explicitly to indicate that they are matters to be covered by school charters.
In the case of amendment No. 3, I propose that the Minister will address the use of reduced timetables as an area in the charter guidelines explicitly to be covered within the charter of a school. As Senators will be aware, reduced timetables are a practice recognised in schools where the school will arrange for a student either to be sent home before the end of the day or to arrive later than usual, reducing the contact hours of the student with his or her primary or secondary education. As the child still attends school in theory, no notification to Tusla of school absence is required. They have been used by teachers and school boards to manage challenging behaviour of students. They are a shameful practice and anecdotal evidence indicates they have been used disproportionately in the case of lower-income students, Traveller students and students with a disability. Their use must end.
In recent months, we in the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills have investigated such practices in detail, holding public hearings with stakeholders in May and publishing an interim report before the summer that rejected their use in all but exceptional circumstances. It is welcome that in response, the Minister's Department has published draft guidelines on the matter that require a notification to Tusla and the collection of national statistics, and that he appeared before the education committee to engage with us in September. I also welcomed the invitation to stakeholders to submit their observations, a process in which I was happy to engage. In my submission to the consultation group, I noted that the use of reduced timetables would decrease if teachers had greater understanding of the socioeconomic factors that might lead a child to act out in a classroom setting, and that reforms to teacher training in this regard may be useful. I also suggested that the Minister appoint an officer, either within his Department or more regionally, to work on resolving such issues among students, parents and schools on a full-time basis, and to act as an advocate for the household. Such a person could act not only as a mediator but also as an independent advocate for students and families with less capacity to advocate for themselves. Finally, I suggested in my submission that we give statutory effect to the guidelines, or at least make a statutory reference to the proposed procedures for reduced timetables, within the legislation.
The Bill proposes a new era of collaborative decision-making and agreement in schools and families, which is the motivation for amendment No. 3. If reduced timetables were given statutory provision in the Bill and included in the initial engagements that will lead to the first school charters being drawn up, we could reduce their incidence to zero, which would be an incredible achievement and legacy for the Bill. I urge the Minister to accept it.
Amendment No. 4 is proposed in a similar spirit and relates to the use of seclusion and restraints in schools. As the Minister will be aware, last September, Inclusion Ireland published a report that detailed anecdotal evidence on the use of seclusion and restraints in schools whereby a child is physically restrained by a teacher or school staff member when exhibiting challenging behaviour or, worse again, isolated in a locked space or room. My office has drafted legislation on the matter that we have yet to table. The report highlighted how such techniques are used mainly in the case of children with intellectual disabilities, an even more concerning detail about an already concerning practice. Such techniques should not be used in classrooms and their use must end. Teachers must receive the appropriate training to de-escalate episodes before such extreme techniques are required, as are national statutory guidelines and reporting mechanisms on their use, which do not currently exist, for when they may be required as a last resort.
A working group in the Department is examining the matter, which I welcome, and I accept that the Minister will resist making an addition to the Bill, given that the group is expected to engage in public consultation soon. Nevertheless, my amendments are not prescriptive and will allow him to include the results of the process in the national guidelines for charters. Measures such as reduced timetables and seclusion and restraint are often used in circumstances where families have poor relationships with schools and teachers and there is a vacuum of communication and engagement. Expressly referring to such issues in the law governing national statutory guidelines for charters will ensure the creation of a collaborative learning environment in which it is hoped such issues would not arise in the first instance.
On seclusion and restraint in particular, the guidelines will need to be backed up by statutory power. A circular will not be enough. When such techniques are used in hospitals and social care facilities such as nursing homes, there is mandatory reporting to the HSE. When they are used in schools, especially in the case of those under the age of 18 years, there is an even greater requirement for State regulation and reporting. I urge the Minister to accept amendment No. 4 because it will allow for statutory teeth to be given to the efforts to eliminate such concerning practices altogether.