Wednesday, 6 November 2019
Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019: Committee Stage
Paudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
This is an opportunity to contribute on this important legislation. I note the amendment brought forward by my colleague with reference to the ombudsman and the response of the Minister. The Bill seeks to establish a charter to improve and strengthen communication and co-operation between school stakeholders. That is critical and it is a very good move. I recognise the proposal made in the amendment on the involvement of the Ombudsman for Children.
I was a member of a board of management for more than ten years and spent eight years as chairperson. We must recognise the responsibility that lies with boards of management in terms of legislation, responsibility and accountability for implementing school policies and the proper operation of a school and its environment. I recognise the voluntary contribution of boards of management across the country. As Senators are aware, board members give of their time and expertise voluntarily and 99% of the time it works well and people engage in a very positive manner. However, as the Minister is aware, in some cases problems arise and that is when things must be dealt with swiftly and appropriately.
It is my experience that school stakeholders may become isolated when something goes wrong. I refer to the discussion on transparency in the making of voluntary contributions to schools. I also note that substantial State grants and funds are allocated to primary and secondary schools. With that investment comes responsibility and transparency in how the funds are spent. For that reason, I welcome the Bill and, in particular, the charter. This section allows for a ministerial direction where issues arise and efforts to resolve them are exhausted and unsuccessful. That is critical.
I raise this matter - I know that the Minister is wondering - because I have direct experience as chairperson of a board of management of a situation involving financial irregularities at a school. A whole school evaluation was carried out. The matter was brought to the attention of departmental officials, but it was left to the voluntary board members to clean up the mess. There was no charter or help in deciding how to deal with it. Thankfully, a strong board working in the interests of the school, the pupils who attended it and parents who had sent their children to it stayed strong and dealt with the irregularities appropriately. My experience was that there was very little help available from the Department. The situation to which I refer arose long before the Minister was appointed to his current office, but a blind eye was turned to the difficulties being experienced.
It is critical that we have a charter outlining that parents and students have a right to know how a school is being run. Certain board members will do their best to engage with parents and students, but others may not and that is when difficulties may arise. The Bill will strengthen the hand of boards of management and those who genuinely want to see a school being run well. It will help to fight the problem of irregularities in policy implementation, financial matters or dealing with other issues. I have first-hand experience of these matters. People who know me and the board I was on will know the school to which I refer. I will not mention names in the House because it would be unfair to do so, but if it happened in the school in which I was a member of the board of management, it is happening in others around the country. I make this point to the Minister and his officials who are in attendance. We need to be very careful in how State funds and grants are being spent in schools. A significant degree of autonomy is given to schools in that regard. Boards of management are voluntary and have the best of intentions, but problems can arise. When they do, they must be dealt with swiftly and properly. The charter will be of assistance in that respect, but we have a long way to go before there will be full transparency and accountability for how State funds are spent.