Wednesday, 6 November 2019
Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019: Committee Stage
Joe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
I want to highlight a number of points about these amendments. I know Senator Boyhan talked about the independence of the ombudsman as well as Senator Ruane. The specific basis on which the Ombudsman for Children engages with schools is already enshrined in legislation. The Ombudsman for Children does not engage with schools as a representative or advocate for the complainant or for the Department, but in order to examine the issues raised. It seeks to work in co-operation with schools and the parent or student in question to encourage the resolution of any issues without proceeding to a formal investigation. This approach works effectively in law and in practice. However, the proposed amendments contain anomalies and inconsistencies and would adversely affect the ability of the Ombudsman for Children to engage with schools in a positive and co-operative manner as they currently do in the vast majority of cases. For example, the amendment empowers the Minister for Education and Skills, who is not a party to and has not been involved in the matter under examination by the ombudsman, to direct a school to comply with any suggestions guidance or recommendations given by the Ombudsman for Children whereas it separately provides that a school is simply required to consider any such suggestions, guidance or recommendations when they are received from the Ombudsman for Children. A number of concerns and anomalies came to light when the advice of the Office of the Attorney General came back during the drafting of this legislation. A key concern is that these provisions would have had the effect of fundamentally changing how the ombudsman operates by compelling school boards to consider any suggestions, guidance or recommendations rather than working to encourage schools to take actions to resolve the matter.As anybody who has heard me speak on this matter will know, I am against using legislation to compel schools to open special classes. I believe in operating in a spirit of co-operation and partnership. I do not subscribe to a philosophy of compelling schools to do things. We have a very formal system in place which promotes co-operation. Schools are encouraged to take action to resolve the matter without having to get into the formal stages of the process. I am in favour of things being sorted out at an early stage where that is possible.
There is no provision in the legislation pertaining to the Office of the Ombudsman for Children in the issuing of directions by a Minister, even on foot of a completed investigation by the ombudsman. To include a provision that would allow the Minister for Education and Skills to issue directions arising from a preliminary or full investigation by the ombudsman would be a significant departure from the current approach and impact significantly on the manner in which the Office of the Ombudsman for Children carries out its work. It is not something that is sought or desired by the ombudsman. Although the approach in this context has changed from that under the original scheme, it is important to note that the overall objective of the Bill is to bring about a significant cultural change in some schools, with a shift away from reacting to problems after they arise and towards dealing with them at an earlier stage through better engagement, consultation and transparency. Schools will for the first time put in place a standardised complaints procedure such that parents will know the score before they send their four or five year old to primary school. They will know the exact relevant procedure if their son or daughter is in a situation that requires parental involvement. There will be transparency in that regard in all schools.
These and other measures in the Bill will help to greatly improve the culture in schools and the level of responsiveness to any concern or grievance that arises. They will bring clarity to what is required of schools, students and parents in that regard. The approach in the finalised Bill presented to the House is appropriate and proportionate having regard to the comprehensive framework being put in place and the practical role and legal framework that apply to the Office of the Ombudsman for Children.
These are two of three amendments the Senator has put forward related to how the work of the ombudsman interacts with the Bill. The Senator also contributed on a previous Stage in that regard. For the reasons I have outlined, I cannot accept the amendments, but I highlight for the Senator that I am actively considering the matter raised in amendment No. 31 and will speak further to it later in the debate.