Seanad debates

Thursday, 10 November 2005

1:00 pm

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I appreciate the fact she has come in person to the House and taken time out of her busy schedule to deal with this Adjournment matter.

Both the Minister and I were teachers before entering politics. A lady came to my office recently and told me her daughter attends a school in Carlow town. The school day starts at 9.20 a.m. but the school has now introduced a rule that the children cannot access the building until 9.15 a.m. This may be tolerable in May, June and September when the weather is good but it presents difficulties in the winter months. I appreciate the question of who is in charge and the liability of teachers and principals may be a grey area in this context. In most schools many staff members arrive early in the morning and would have no difficulty with the children accessing the classrooms, especially on a bad morning.

I ask the Minister to clarify the procedure in the case of a school where formal classes begin at 9.20 a.m. When are children entitled to enter the building, especially on a wet day? Are schools permitted to introduce local by-laws? For instance, a boys' school next door to the school in question has a different set of rules. I left teaching three years ago and since then teachers are payed for lunchtime supervision. This may have had a knock-on effect. I appreciate the Minister coming to the House to clarify the matter.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I wish to thank the Senator for raising this matter and I agree that it is a grey area. I will take the opportunity to outline what is stated in the rules and the supervision arrangements, which may be of help to the Senator. In accordance with the provisions of the Education Act 1998, the board of management and principal teacher of individual primary schools have the responsibility for the day-to-day management of their schools. In fulfilling their role in this regard they are required to take appropriate steps to ensure the safety of both pupils and staff.

The rules for national schools specify that a school shall be open to receive the pupils not later than 9.30 a.m. The typical timetable for a school day comprises five hours and 40 minutes, broken down between periods of secular instruction, religious instruction and break times. The first 20 minutes of the school day are spent on assembly time which is defined as the period when all teachers are working with children in their classrooms, checking homework, providing additional instruction and other teaching and learning activities. All pupils are expected to be in the school for the commencement of assembly time. The rule states the starting time as no later than 9.30 a.m. but does not specify a starting time.

In accordance with the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 1989, it is the responsibility of individual school management authorities to have a safety statement in place in their schools. The statement should identify potential hazards, assess the risks to health and safety and put appropriate provisions in place to safeguard the safety and health of employees and pupils. The safety statement should be reviewed on a regular basis.

The overall responsibility for the day-to-day management of school supervision rests with the principal teacher. The terms of circular 16/73, which was issued to all schools, continue to apply, namely, that the principal teacher should organise supervision for the order and general behaviour of the pupils during school hours. In particular, she or he should organise and participate in the effective supervision of the pupils during breaks, lunch breaks, assembly and dismissal.

The rules then oblige teachers to take all reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of pupils and to participate in supervising pupils when the pupils are on school premises, during school time and-or on school activities. Accordingly, there is a responsibility on all teachers individually and collectively to provide a duty of care at all times towards the children in the school in which they teach, including periods of supervision.

In 2003, following agreement between my Department and the relevant interests, my Department issued circular 29/03 to all primary schools on the subject of grants available to schools for supervision of pupils. This circular outlines the position on the provision of funding for supervision in schools on the basis of an estimated need of 37 hours supervision per annum per whole-time teacher equivalent or a minimum of 122 hours per school, whichever is the greater. It may be of interest to the Senator to know that in determining the number of hours which should be allocated to schools, the need for supervision for a period of time outside of the normal class contact time was taken into account. This allocation also takes account of the nature and extent of supervision required, the age range of the pupils and guarantees the levels of care and supervision provided to all pupils.

As Senator Browne noted, the degree of supervision required of school authorities varies with the circumstances, including the age of the child. The existence and scope of the supervision required can be controlled by effective communication with the parents, involving, for example, written notes of acceptance by the parents that pupils are not to arrive before a certain time. When deciding on its policy on this issue, a board of management would normally take into account the time at which pupils availing of school transport arrive at the school, for example. The rules set out the latest time at which a school shall open. The rules and the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, set out the duties regarding supervision and the supervision scheme allows for teachers to be paid outside of those school hours and which would include the early morning times as referred to by the Senator. I hope this clarifies the situation.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister.