Seanad debates

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2007: Second Stage

 

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

5:00 pm

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I am pleased to have this opportunity in the Seanad to debate the Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. I believe there will be substantial support for its general purpose and main aim, which is to give effect to a key recommendation of the task force on student behaviour, namely, that section 29 of the Education Act 1998 should be revisited with a view to amending it to stress the rights of the compliant majority to learn while at the same time protecting the rights of the individual student to an education.

I established the task force on student behaviour in early 2005 to examine the issue of disruptive behaviour in our second level schools, to consider effective strategies already employed, to advise on best practice in fostering positive behaviour and to make recommendations on how best to promote an improved climate for teaching and learning in our schools. The report of the task force, School Matters, put forward a number of recommendations to place schools in a stronger position to meet the challenges of motivating and catering for their entire student cohort, including those, "whose troubling behaviour is reflective of a wider societal breakdown of acceptable norms of courtesy and civility". In early 2006, I announced an implementation strategy following publication of the report of the task force, which is now well advanced.

At the core of the task force's recommendations was the putting in place of a national behaviour support service, NBSS. The service is now in place and has already commenced its engagement with schools and intensive work will begin shortly with a number of schools most in need of this intervention. As part of this initial engagement, the NBSS invited schools across the country to formally make application to benefit from its services. As a result, it has completed its consideration of 124 applications that were received from individual schools for support from the service, including the establishment of behaviour support classrooms. The applicant schools are drawn from each of the school sectors and represent a good geographic and gender profile mix.

Based on careful consideration of each application, 50 schools have now been identified to receive support as part of a phased roll-out of activity under the new service. Each of these 50 schools has been notified of their participation in the first phase and a progressive roll-out of services to these schools commenced immediately after the mid-term break with the service's teams conducting in-house briefings with school staff.

The task force report, in its recommendations to schools, also provided valuable insights into strategies and approaches for dealing with disruptive students. It set these in the context of a whole school approach to the issue of discipline and I am sure that the report itself will be a useful tool for schools in developing their responses to this issue. It is inevitable, however, that some students by their behaviour will leave their schools with little option but to use the last resorts of long-term suspension or permanent exclusion. It is vitally important that these sanctions remain avenues of last resort and are not taken lightly.

In such circumstances, the appeal system under section 29 of the Education Act 1998 has, since it commenced in 2001, provided parents and students over the age of 18 with an avenue of independent review when this difficult situation arises. Section 29 of the Education Act provides that an appeal may be made to the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Science against a decision by a school's board of management to permanently exclude a student, suspend a student for more than 20 days cumulative in any school year or refuse to enrol a student.

The task force, in dealing with section 29, outlined the concerns expressed by school representatives regarding their experience with what it termed, "this evolving aspect of the new legislative framework". However, the task force also drew particular attention to the view of the National Educational Welfare Board, "that the advent of the appeals system has been positive for schools [and it] has prompted schools to re-examine and review their policies, and to ensure, as far as possible, that policies and procedures are balanced, fair and transparent".

In this respect I am glad to report that the National Educational Welfare Board is finalising comprehensive guidelines for schools on developing and implementing effective codes of behaviour. The NEWB is currently finalising an implementation and support plan for the roll-out of these guidelines to schools.

The task force recommended that my Department should revisit section 29 of the Education Act 1998 with a view to amending it to stress the rights of the compliant majority to learn while at the same time protecting the rights of the persistently disruptive student to an education. Following a review of the legislation, departmental officials provided briefings for all the education partners on the changes that were being considered to the Education Act 1998 and, in particular, the redefinition of section 29 of the Act. There was general welcome for the proposals, as outlined, and the partners indicated broad support for the proposals at the briefing sessions. I propose, in this Bill, to amend section 29 of the Education Act 1998 to take account of the task force recommendations on the appeals process.

Section 4 of the Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill will require a section 29 appeal committee dealing with an appeal relating to expulsion or long-term suspension to take account of the educational interests of other students in the school, as well as the interests of the student who is the subject of the appeal, when deciding on the case. The Bill sets out a range of factors that an appeals committee will have to consider, in dealing with expulsions and long-term suspensions, including the nature, scale and extent of the student's behaviour that gave rise to the suspension or expulsion, the reasonableness of efforts made by the school to enable the student to participate in and benefit from education, and the educational interests of the student concerned and the desirability and practicality of enabling the student to continue to participate in and benefit from education with his or her peers in the school setting. They will also have to take into account the educational interests of the other students in the school and the maintenance of a classroom environment that is supportive of learning. The safety, health and welfare of teachers, students and staff of the school will be also be among the factors to be considered. The school's code of behaviour and any other relevant policies will also be looked at.

The aim of the Bill is to provide a clearly stated statutory framework within which an appeals committee must determine an appeal and provide for a balancing of rights between the educational interests of the student who is taking an appeal and the educational interests of the school community as a whole. In so doing, the Bill sets out a delicate balance of factors, each of which an appeals committee must take into consideration, and which must be weighed, one against the other, in examining the particular circumstances surrounding the decision under appeal. The proposals set out here do not constitute a menu of independent choices to be selected from at will. Instead, it constitutes an array of interconnecting factors to which an appeals committee must have regard in considering the rights of both the individual student and the wider school community.

The task force also recommended that a protocol should be provided to assist school boards in the preparation for an appeal. This recommendation will be given effect in the revision of the procedures for hearing and determining an appeal. These procedures, currently required and in place under the Act, provide the administrative framework within which appeals are dealt with. The procedures will be revised and expanded to reflect a level of detail that would not be appropriate to the primary legislation but that will be of practical assistance to all parties to an appeal. Consideration will also be given to putting the procedures into the more formally structured framework of a statutory instrument. Further consultations with all the education partners will inform this process. The Bill will allow the Minister to regulate for the suspension of the time limit for hearing an appeal during periods of school closures such as school holiday periods. This was also a specific recommendation of the task force. Appeals are dealt with on a year-round basis and this provision will be expanded in the proposed revision of the procedures for hearing and determining an appeal.

The Bill allows for a section 29 appeals committee to refuse to hear an appeal, or to continue with an appeal, which may be frivolous, vexatious or an abuse of process and to draw inferences from the failure of a party to an appeal to comply with requirements made of it such as requests for information or clarity of a position. This may arise in particular in respect of refusals to enrol where a dispute arises as to whether a formal application was made or a definitive decision was taken on an application.

Specifically with regard to refusals to enrol, the Bill will extend the application of section 29(1)(c) to situations where a child is refused enrolment to an all-Irish division of a school. This addresses an anomaly which exists at present in respect of a school which contains a separate all-Irish division or aonad. At present, a child could be refused enrolment to the aonad but would not have a right of appeal if offered a place in the English language stream within the school. This provision will now permit an appeal, in its own right, in respect of a refused enrolment to an all-Irish division of a school.

The Bill also ensures that a section 29 appeals committee does not hear an appeal which is being or has been dealt with under the appellate functions provided under section 10 of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 and vice versa. However, the Bill ensures the National Council for Special Education, like the National Educational Welfare Board, will be able to make submissions, as it considers appropriate, to an appeals committee dealing with an appeal under section 29.

A number of minor amendments to other parts of the Education Act 1998 are contained in the Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. Section 53 of the Education Act permits the Minister to restrict access to information which would enable the compilation of school league tables based on students' academic performance and to information relating to the identity of examiners involved in the State examinations. As the State Examinations Commission, SEC, has operational responsibility for the conduct of State examinations, the Bill will extend section 53 to the SEC.

The Bill will address procedural matters relating to the functions of the chief inspector and will change some of the functions of the inspectorate under section 13 of the Education Act. Certain functions of the inspectorate in respect of examinations and psychological assessments are now performed by the State Examinations Commission, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and the National Educational Psychological Service, respectively, and the Bill will amend the inspectorate's functions to reflect this. The Bill also amends section 13 of the Education Act 1998 to allow the chief inspector to delegate his or her functions to another inspector and permit the Minister to appoint an acting chief inspector in the event of illness or incapacity of the chief inspector.

The Bill will also give effect to the Government decision to establish the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork as a national cultural institution within the remit of the Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism. In this regard, the Bill provides that the Minister can order the transfer of the lands and property of the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork from the City of Cork Vocational Education Committee to the Office of Public Works.

I sincerely hope Senators will agree with me regarding the positive benefits of this Bill and I look forward to listening to and debating the various provisions with the Members of this House. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I welcome the Minister to the House and I also welcome the Bill. Most people directly and indirectly involved in education are pleased that measures are being brought forward to help lighten the burden on teachers, who are the everyday practitioners in education, and on pupils who wish to work without hindrance in a school environment.

At a time when almost everyone avails of second-level education, it is inevitable that some students will have difficulties. Pupils at second level, and to a lesser extent at primary level, have been identified as having serious problems accepting the curriculum and the work procedures in a school environment where the majority of students aim to achieve the points to continue into third level education. I have experience of pupils with these difficulties as I am sure the Minister has from her former teaching role. However, that experience is not of the extent to which the problem now exists. Anything this Bill can do to lessen the problem is welcome.

The Minister stated the core of the proposal to amend section 29 of the 1998 Act is the establishment of a national behavioural support service. We must be conscious that 50 schools were identified from the 124 schools which made a submission. People will wonder why these schools stigmatised themselves by identifying themselves as having serious problems. I do not see it in that light and I would hate to see anybody use that broad brush on the schools involved and selected for the first phase of implementation of the support service proposed in the Bill.

What sum of money will the Minister invest to get this service off the ground? If we begin well and have visible positive results, the service will go from strength to strength. Regarding personnel, the structure involves 19 people, including co-ordinators. I am sure the person charged with overall national responsibility is one of the finest who could be found and I wish her every success in her difficult task. However, what was spent during recent years in this area is pence compared with the £450 million invested across the water in such a service. In Scotland, approximately €53 million is spent on this type of service for pupils identified as being in need of support and requiring their educational goals and achievements to be redirected.

We must consider the provision of classrooms if a situation comes to the ultimate decision and somebody must be taken out of mainstream education and placed in an identified support room. Such accommodation is not available in most schools. Did the Minister identify resources for the provision of these rooms? The issue will not arise until this is up and running, which will probably be the start of the new academic year rather than the end of this academic year. Do the 50 schools selected and identified have the space for this core requirement? It is important we know.

Regarding a crisis in discipline and with disruption in schools, less than one year ago the Minister wondered what crisis existed and stated people were exaggerating. Many people agreed with her. Broadly speaking, practically every teacher encounters an element of such disruptiveness on a daily basis. This may not be widespread but is evident in practically every school where there is a broad intake of all ranges of ability and where various outcomes must be anticipated.

Ultimately, those people who cause disruption must be identified and dealt with. I do not believe the best way to do this is to put pupils in a room, sin bin or whatever term will be used. A sin bin is used when people are sent from a playing field as a result of disruptive behaviour. They are off the pitch for a certain period of time, after which they come back.

Leaving aside the playing field, such people can be back in a scenario that can be more provocative to all people. It has a serious influence on the peer group within the school and class context. Perhaps it is unfortunate for a teacher who has had the initial experience and must pass it along to the board of management, principal and others involved in discipline within the school.

Thinking back to what some may term "the good old days" prior to the 1998 Act, the power to suspend or expel lay with the principal, president, teachers and school boards of management. Perhaps some would overreact. The matter would be dealt with and there was no appeal mechanism, which may have been unfair. Children may have transferred to another school and done well. Perhaps a great disservice could be done to a pupil who would have to go from one school to another and go on to succeed there.

It is important that the process is achieved quickly and that a prolonged assessment and torturous detailing of steps along the line is avoided. Although it is recognised that such a process is important, it is also important for it to be done quickly. This will leave a fair end result. A long and drawn-out process would be seriously detrimental in a case where a pupil is received back into a school.

We must think of cases where students are expelled or suspended for a long time from a school. Another mechanism should be available. The Minister mentioned the welfare system which is there, with the psychological service etc. We must think of an environment outside the existing school scenario. For example, Youthreach has done tremendous work over the years for students identified as having left the system for one reason or another, be it related to discipline or total rejection of the system within which they were initially involved.

I hope the task force would consider cases where a mechanism similar to that of Youthreach would be used with pupils identified in such a way. If a school has a room or area within which one or more of such identified pupils are contained or restrained, there will be serious problems. These will include identification and the prospect of pupils becoming targets for bullying. These and related problems would cause very serious disruption within a school environment.

I strongly support the introduction of this legislation and hope the Minister will clearly identify two or three issues I have mentioned. I hope the matter will quickly become national rather than remain a pilot scheme, for want of a better word, as it is currently. We should have a clearly defined budget relative to the numbers involved and the problem that can be identified.

Some 43 schools made initial submissions, but perhaps the advertisement seeking submissions may not have been fully understood by many schools. Most schools should be issued with a circular from the Department to invite them to make a submission at an early stage so we can have a full and comprehensive understanding of the problems out there.

The matter must be handled with the greatest of care. The initial steps to be taken must be seen to be effective, fair and manageable. We should set a benchmark for the future because what we have now is in some ways unacceptable. For example, it is not acceptable that professionals at work can be treated in some of the appalling ways that have been evident. I will not mention any particular isolated case that may have come to notice through the press.

It is imperative that the pupils who want to go ahead are allowed to do so in a proper environment. Those identified through this mechanism must be dealt with fairly and squarely, and they should have a definite opportunity of rehabilitation into a system. They may not necessarily continue within what could be termed a normal class situation.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I welcome the Minister. I am very pleased that this Minister is heading up the education position, knowing that she understands and would be the first to state that it is unacceptable that professionals such as herself, myself and Senator Ulick Burke would have to tolerate disruptive behaviour in the classroom. I believe the Minister has a very clear understanding of the matter.

We must take into account that society has changed over the last number of years, along with family structures. Naturally, these types of problems have escalated to the extent that there are schools that cannot cope with the significant disruptive behaviour existing in them.

This is a very important Bill, with section 29 of the 1998 Education Act being revisited to take into account the rights of disruptive students to learn, as well as taking into account that the majority in the classroom now have the right to be taught and learn. This is key to this area and a core issue.

The Minister has outlined that it will give effect to a key recommendation of the task force on student behaviour. It is only fair that the rights of the majority of good-willed students should not be grossly affected by individual students. That is the reason the Bill is so important.

This task force was set up in 2005 to deal with disruptive behaviour, with its brief to consider what strategies can now be employed to advise on best practice in fostering good behaviour in the school, creating a better environment for our students and a climate for teaching and learning through the Irish school system. Its recommendations were to ensure schools were better placed to deal with all the students, including those having difficulties.

I noted Senator Ulick Burke's comments on the lack of finance, but there is €8 million in this year's budget. He also indicated that he welcomed the new concept of the national behaviour support service, which is a very new idea. It is to be introduced into the classroom and we do not need to repeat the Minister's statement that 50 schools are being piloted to see how this would work. The back-up structures are in place, namely, home-school links, guidance counsellors, Youthreach services and remedial teachers.

There are teething problems with any new structure that is put in place to help students who cannot be contained in classrooms, but I welcome this new concept, in respect of which the National Educational Welfare Board will work to determine whether we can improve school retention levels without interfering in the learning of the majority of students. It is a good move. Will the Minister give more detail about how the teamwork will operate in the classroom structure? This service must be rolled out, as it can work if everyone works together. I see no difficulty in that regard.

There is a problem in the appeals system. I have received letters from the Irish Vocational Education Association stating the system is like a revolving door, that is, those who had been expelled or placed on long-term suspension are able to get back in many cases. I welcome the Minister's acknowledgement of the problems. The Bill is concerned with protecting those who cannot be contained in the system and preserving the normal level of teaching and learning in a school. The new appeals system will take into account these and other relevant factors.

The Minister referred to analysing the nature and extent of the student's behaviour, which would be difficult. I am interested in learning what was meant. I have no difficulty with the provision concerning the reasonableness of efforts made by the school to enable the student to participate in and benefit from education. One must be reasonable, that is, classroom teachers, graded teachers dealing with discipline problems, school principals and all of the educational partners, including the NEWB, must take into account every consideration. Everything must be done to try to contain the young student in the classroom and to have regard to the educational interest of the student. Whether the student could be allowed to stay in the classroom and to work with his or her peer group must be determined under these new arrangements. The safety and health of the teachers and students must also be taken into account.

If there is an appeal, I welcome that the board of management has a structured framework within which to work. Previously, the framework was loose, but there will now be a new procedure to facilitate both parties, namely, the school authority and the appellant. If we get this matter right, the process will become easy. Regarding a school's refusal to enrol a student in its all-Irish division, I welcome the extension of the provision. I also welcome that applications do not need to be entertained if they are frivolous, which many are.

A great deal of work was covered by the Minister's speech. Speaking as a teacher, all aspects of the situation have been taken into account. Many teachers are in the Chamber today and are ready to pounce. They have noted the points that were raised.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Where will we pounce?

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

We have disappointed the Senator.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I welcome that the Minister has moved the issue in this direction, as the appeals system is important. If one clarifies the factors involved before expelling a student or placing him or her on long-term suspension, one introduces new methods, namely, the national support system the Minister intends to introduce to the classroom.

After ensuring co-ordination and teamwork, we are in the lap of the gods. Some students cannot be contained in the classroom. I hope alternatives are in place when a school reaches that decision, namely, Youthreach for those over 15 years of age, another youth programme for those who are younger or some measure that would allow a student to continue his or her education. Many students have ADHD and, from my experience of dealing with such students, they cannot be contained in classrooms. They are not team players and cannot structure themselves in a classroom setting. It would not be fair to the majority. The core of the Bill is to look after the majority while getting the balance right to protect those who cannot be contained in the classroom. The Minister has got the matter right and I hope it will work after implementation.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus roimh an mBille. Tá sé tábhachtach agus in a lán slite tá muid ag feitheamh leis an Bhille seo leis na blianta. Tá na rudaí istigh ann pléite go maith ag an Aire, againne agus ag múinteoirí sa chéad agus sa dara leibhéal le blianta: na deacrachtaí balance a fháil i gcomhthéacs chúrsaí smachta i scoileanna, go mbeadh cearta na ndaltaí agus cúram na múinteoirí go hinmheánach sa scoil.

Leis na blianta bhí i gcónaí deacracht ann go raibh brú ar scoileanna cód smachta a chur le chéile agus na rudaí nach bhféadfaidís a chur isteach ann. Cuireadh deireadh le pionós coirpeach i 1982 agus bhí folús ina dhiaidh sin. Bhí sé deacair ag an bpointe sin aon rud a chur isteach ina áit ach thar na blianta, tharla a lán rudaí.

The most extraordinary event of those years was our dealing with the issue of psychological assessments in one of the Education Acts, a matter that was also addressed in the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. Having tried every other process, parents could be compelled to agree or their permission would not be required to insist on a psychological assessment. This was a major move forward, as we were afraid to examine the issue for years.

During the 1990s, there was a sense among teachers that the Department did not or could not support them. The Department was more concerned with telling schools, teachers and boards of management what they could not do in an attempt to ensure the children who were compliant with a school's code of discipline were being properly educated without interruption by disruptive pupils. There were all sorts of difficulties at that time. Officials did not speak about sanctions such as detention, suspension and expulsion other than to tell us they could not be used.

I once dealt with an appeal to the inspectorate in the case of the principal teacher of a school in south Leinster who had been severely reprimanded for isolating a student within the classroom. The child, who was very disruptive, had been told to sit on his own by his teacher, who was a responsible, caring and sensitive professional. This case serves as an example of how officials sometimes fail to understand the impact of their decisions. The teacher in this instance did not sleep for six months until his appeal was heard. The inspectorate understood and accepted the man's argument, in fairness, but not before he had undergone a great deal of hardship. The issues of suspension and expulsion were not even on the radar screen at that stage. It is important that now we are providing that they can be considered.

Many factors will have to be taken into consideration when the appeals committee comes to a decision on an appeal against an expulsion or suspension. I spoke ten or 15 years ago in favour of providing for suspension and expulsion in certain circumstances. I said that the nature, scale and persistence of any behaviour should be taken into consideration by a school before it makes a decision. Each school should be judged on the reasonableness of its attempts to deal with the problem child. It is important to consider whether other children in the class are deprived of their right to education if two or three students continually act in a disruptive manner. A balance must be struck. Schools need to accept that they must follow certain processes before they can take the penultimate or ultimate step. Health and safety issues must be considered, for example. Schools are in a better position when they deal with the appeals board if it is clear that they have checked all the boxes and done certain things. The quality of that process also must be examined. This system will give everyone a sense of security. If I was to make any complaint about the Bill, I would point out that it was needed many years ago. Perhaps that would be an unfair criticism, because I recognise that this legislation represents progress.

This Bill will give authority to schools and boards of management. They will know that the decisions which are made can be appealed. When I spoke recently to a group of teachers about the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004, I outlined to them the eight or nine different appeals which will be possible under the Act. Further appeals will be possible under this legislation. It would be helpful if the Department of Education and Science could make training courses available to those who will implement the provisions of this legislation. Such people want to know what will be considered as reasonable, for example. We all know what we consider reasonable, but the official view should be made known. How do we measure the reasonableness of any efforts made by the school to enable the student to whom the appeal relates to participate in and benefit from education? I do not suggest that it can be absolutely measured, but what will we look for in that regard?

There will be fewer appeals if this process is structured properly. Appeals tend to occur when people think they will be successful. If schools know that the process could lead to an appeal, they will have to be very careful. Schools should be helped to understand how they can contribute to the quality of the process. That would give confidence to school authorities in facing an appeal or giving evidence to a board of appeal. If the decisions of schools are being appealed, at least their representatives should be able to say that they followed the relevant steps properly. If they do so, the appeals board will have to accept their arguments or give reasons for not doing so. The board might find that the school authorities did not engage in enough consultation with parents, for example, or that they tried to implement other sanctions before taking this step. I think that some clarification would be helpful. While some guidance is being given, it would be nice for it to be a central part of what must take place. It is a matter of time before people decide to go to the courts after an appeal has been rejected.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Yes.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Leader of the House will recall a famous case in County Longford some years ago. A school was taken to court even though it had followed the appropriate process as it understood it. All sorts of comments, letters and statements were issued which caused a great deal of trauma for all involved. The school authorities emerged satisfactorily from the traumatic process which was a huge imposition for them. It was unfair on them. I welcome this Bill because it will make it far less likely for such a case to take place again. If somebody appeals a decision, the first thing the judge will ask will be what domestic remedies were put in place. If those remedies took the form of a process and an appeal, the courts will be slow to intervene. Nothing further will be possible in such circumstances unless people opt for some sort of judicial review. The courts will again be slow to intervene in that case. If people follow the process, I believe it will be soundly held.

We need to focus on what we want to achieve as we try to strike a balance between giving authority and confidence to schools so they can deliver educational services to all their pupils, who must be the focus of our efforts, and putting in place measures for dealing with the problems which can arise in classrooms. We cannot lose sight of the needs of the 30 or more pupils who are not involved in the cases with which we are dealing. We will not mention the issue of class sizes tonight.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

We will put out the Senator.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

We must think of the other children in the class as well. We can only strike the necessary balance if we use an agreed process. This Bill will allow such a process to evolve, develop and work. I do not doubt there will be difficulties with it; there are bound to be difficulties with it. The teachers who have been waiting for a new system to be put in place will be able to deal with it. While we might say that it could have been provided for earlier, it is in our nature as teachers to think that nothing is on time.

It is important to emphasise that when schools draw up codes of behaviour, which do not arrive out of the air, they will consult the entire school community. Codes of behaviour should be taken into account by the inspectorate when it conducts whole school evaluations. The inspectorate will be able to decide whether the codes make sense. It is important that we provide for a stamp of approval at every stage. Each of the partners in the school community — parents, the board of management, the pupils, the principal and the staff — needs to be committed to this process. The inspectorate will be responsible for deciding whether each code is fine and within the terms of the guidelines. Hard decisions can be taken after the various steps have been followed.

I compliment the Minister on her decision to ensure the system is statutorily based, because that will give everybody confidence. It is important that these new provisions are being introduced on a statutory basis, rather than by means of regulation or circular, which is often tempting. If they had been introduced by means of regulation or circular, I would not expect them to last very long before the courts were used on every occasion. We can make progress in this regard on the basis of this legislation.

Fáiltím roimh na moltaí atá sa reachtaíocht seo. Tá súil agam go n-éireóidh leis. Tá mé cinnte go ndéanfaidh sé dul chun cinn sna scoileanna. Tá a fhios agam go mbeidh deacrachtaí ar leith ann chun an rud a chur chun tosaigh i dtosach. Bíonn deacrachtaí ann i gcónaí. Tá sé tábhachtach go mbeidh iontaoibh ag múinteoirí, tuismitheoirí, na boird bhainistíochta agus the school community sa chód agus sa phróiseas. I hope they give it a vote of confidence ionas go n-éireóidh leis. Táimid ag feitheamh leis an reachtaíocht seo leis na blianta, ach tá sé againn anois. Tá súil agam go n-éireóidh leis.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I welcome the Minister to the House. I am smiling while reflecting on the name of the Bill, the Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. One could continue forever introducing such a Bill, because for every loophole one would close another one would appear. I can only imagine the outcome of doing that. There are varied circumstances in education, as the Minister is well aware from being a teacher and as Senators Ormonde, O'Toole, Ulick Burke and Kitt are also aware. It is difficult to adopt a template or framework that would deal with all the lacunae that arise. I commend the Minister on taking this opportunity to endeavour to close off many of the loopholes that have arisen and which cause such fraught tenor in a school, a classroom or a community, as Senator O'Toole said.

Section 29 of the Education Act provides that an appeal may be made to the Secretary General of the Minister's Department against a decision by a school's board of management to permanently exclude a student, a provision with which I agree. I want to bring a case to the Minister's attention, although I will not mention any names as I will submit a written appeal to the Secretary General of the Department on the basis laid out in the Act. This case involves a boy whose parents jumped through all the hoops. The school was informed that it lost its appeal and must now re-register the boy but it is refusing to do so. I have not dealt with a case previously where a school adamantly refused over a period of months to re-register a student. The boy in this case has been deprived of his education for that period.

I am compiling a report on this case. I was aware this Bill was to be introduced and I take this opportunity to raise this case without mentioning the names of the parents, the boy or the circumstances involved, as I will give that information to the Secretary General of the Minister's Department, as required under the Act, and I am sure she will reply, having given the case her attention.

The school in question has been obstructive in that the principal or person in charge was not available to attend arranged meetings, but numerous pretexts have been put forward as to why the boy, who won the decision in the appeal, should not be allowed back into the school. The process was followed according to the appeals mechanism outlined in the Act and in this legislation and a full hearing took place at which the school lost its appeal and the boy was deemed to be re-admitted to that school. However, that did not happen and I consider that to be a serious matter. The Minister might indicate when replying — even if I am not present, in which case I can check her reply in the Official Report — if the Act imposes strictures on a school in a case such as this. This school has adamantly refused to re-register a student, even though everything was laid out as to what should be done and both sides adhered to the principles to be followed. The boy in question, who could be almost called a young man, has not been allowed back into that school and has been deprived of his education for many months. I regard this as a serious matter. Clearly, the Department, following the enactment of the Education Act 1998, has made every effort to provide that the right mechanisms are put in place to ensure there will be no escape for either the school or the pupil, depending on the decision made, if there is a case to be ameliorated or heard. It is disgraceful that a school would refuse to obey the provisions of an Act, which is what this school has done. It has refused to follow the strictures imposed under the Act.

The Minister may say I go around picking up such cases — but I do not — when I relay that I was visited last night by a distressed parent and the circumstances of her case are the opposite to those of the case I have just outlined. This parent was married and is now a single mother. Her son lost his appeal and the school's case was upheld. The mother must now get two second level schools within the catchment area that will refuse to admit this young man. The school he was attending has already refused him admission and the mother is seeking to contact another school. She has now suddenly been offered the use of a facilitator — I do not know if the Act provides for this — who will help her in her quest as to how to proceed with the case and what can be done to allow this young man to get back into the education system.

In the space of a few weeks, I have dealt with two cases which come under the provisions of the Education Act 1998 and particularly the implementation of the 2001 legislation. In one case the parents won the appeal but they have heard that it will not be possible for the person in charge in the school to attend meetings, and meetings that were arranged have been postponed. What means of redress have those parents?

In the second case the parent lost the appeal, the school's determination in the case was upheld and nearly five months following the appeal the parent has received a letter, which I have with my constituency papers, advising her that she will be offered the assistance of a facilitator. I welcome that offer as this parent must determine her son's future and needs the help of a skilled person. The facilitator will provide that skill which is useful. Obviously, that facility is provided for under the Act or the offer would not have been made. I commend the Minister and her officials on the work they have done. It is difficult to mop up various small-scale matters which can lead to difficulty arising under an Act.

Senator Ormonde spoke eloquently on the right of other students to be educated in circumstances where a child or children permanently disrupt a class and do not allow the teacher to teach. In such circumstances the parents of the other children would say the child in question is disrupting the class and their children cannot get a proper education. People will say it is much more difficult for teachers to cope today but I do not believe it is. With human nature being what it is, there always will be difficult, docile and studious students. Every parent's duck is a swan and every parent wants the best for his or her child.

When I was teaching I did not like children to be put out of a class if there was a way to resolve the matter in the classroom. The loss of confidence, dignity and stature suffered by such students is huge and way beyond what they thought when they set out on their path of disruptive behaviour. I will write letters tonight to the Secretary General on the two cases I outlined and I hope I will hear back from her. While I would like to hear the Minister's reply to these matters, I have to leave to attend a meeting, but I will be able to peruse the detail of her reply in the Official Report.

I commend the Bill to the House.

6:00 pm

Photo of Joanna TuffyJoanna Tuffy (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I broadly welcome the Bill. I welcome the idea of a national behaviour support service. It is important that it would be properly resourced. I am interested in the idea of behaviour support classrooms and the Minister might explain what those support classrooms would entail. Will these classrooms have staff who are specialists in this area as such teachers would need to be specially trained?

The suspension or expulsion of a disruptive student poses a problem for the schools, pupils and parents concerned as the options are limited as to where such students can go. They either find another school and similar problems may arise or they go to Youthreach, but there is nothing in between. The behaviour support classrooms might be an interim solution but this might not be appropriate for certain students. In the case of a student with ADHD which contributes to his or her behaviour, would it be possible for such a student to spend a period in a special needs school and then return to the mainstream school? The behavioural problems might be addressed and managed in the special needs school.

Members of the Joint Committee on Education and Science visited a couple of special needs schools in south Dublin a few years ago. One school catered for students of late primary school and early second level age. The principal of the school expressed the view that the school might have a future role in taking students from other schools on a temporary basis in order to address their needs and then return them to their original schools. This proposal should be considered by the behavioural support service.

More work is being done in mainstream schools to provide for students with special needs. The infrastructure of special needs schools may need to be adapted to new needs. The Minister could use the existing infrastructure in special needs schools, where appropriate, to work with mainstream schools which are dealing with disruptive behaviour arising from special needs problems. I ask the Minister to inform me if she has any plans in this regard.

I have frequent dealings with my local educational welfare officer because I am aware of people who seem to have fallen between the gaps and their children do not have a school place. My community has multiple issues. For example, families coming from another country and looking for a place in a local school are being turned down even though the child may be nearly six years of age. These families are not aware of their rights. I refer them to the local educational welfare officer who visits them and gives them advice. I am also aware of cases where as a result of parents making a decision to move from the area and then returning, the children fall between the gaps and are not at school for a period of time. If families are dysfunctional or if the parents are not well and have psychological or health needs, the education of the children is not being attended to. I refer all such cases to the educational welfare officer or I will inform her of the situation. The local educational welfare officers are over stretched; they need more resources and there needs to be more of them. These officers are often involved in duties outside their role, such as dealing with bullying where a school is not dealing appropriately with the issue. In these cases the educational welfare officer may intervene to help the parents and the child to find another school. However, this may not be the proper solution which should be that the school puts in place procedures to assist the child and the parents. There needs to be more resources allocated to the National Educational Welfare Board because of the needs of the growing local community. The role of educational welfare officers is becoming more significant. They are very busy and they need more help.

I am aware of cases where students experienced bullying but neither they nor their parents were happy with the manner in which the matter was addressed by the school. The procedure for dealing with bullying in primary schools is made clear on the Department's website but the procedure for dealing with bullying in second level schools is not so clearly defined. It appears that a person taking issue with a second level school can make a complaint to the Department of Education and Science but this is not made clear on the Department's website or when one telephones the Department. This matter should be addressed because bullying is equally, if not more so, an issue in second level schools than in primary schools. I am not certain of the statistics but it is definitely an issue in second level schools and there needs to be clear procedures and a clear avenue for parents to choose if they are not happy with the response from a school. I suggest that a person should be available to mediate between a school and a parent or a child if bullying is taking place to avoid the necessity for them to make a complaint against the school. The mediator could be available to provide advice as the educational welfare officer is not the appropriate person and it is not part of the role of the educational welfare officer. These are the issues I wish to raise with the Minister in the context of this Bill, which I welcome.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I welcome the Minister to the House and I welcome the Bill. It is important to deal with any loopholes in the Education Act 1998. I welcome the task force on student behaviour which the Minister established.

Second level schools vary in their type and size. Students may be spoiled for choice in some instances. They can often move from a large to a small school within the same catchment area. More individual attention for a disruptive child in a smaller school might solve many of the problems referred to in the debate. Disruptive students are often forgotten about in large schools. However, not all problems can be resolved. The rights of the compliant majority of students who wish to learn must be respected while, at the same time, the interests of the individual student must be protected. Students may be spoiled for choice in some areas while in other developing areas it might be difficult to get a place in a second level school and that brings its own problems.

I agree with Senator Tuffy on the National Educational Welfare Board and I have always argued for more welfare officers and resources. When the Minister of the time established the board, the constituency of Galway East did not have a welfare officer. We were supposed to be covered by Galway city, which I could never understand. We were lucky enough to be assigned a welfare officer from Tuam, where there are five second level schools, and that was very welcome development. Before that we did not have a schools attendance officer and gardaí did the job, which would not normally be their job as they should have enough to do without having to check on school attendance. An ad hoc committee was set up involving the principals of all the schools in the area, gardaí and social workers. The committee members knew the name of all the students in the second level schools in the area, which was a great achievement on their part. I was disappointed that, when the National Educational Welfare Board was established, it did not incorporate some of the good points of those ad hoc committees, as they had expertise that could be still used in the field of absenteeism and early school leaving, which are two major issues at second level.

The issue of bullying was raised, which is also important and was something with which the ad hoc committee deal, and I hope the National Educational Welfare Board continues that work. The home school liaison officer is very important in that context because that is the person who keeps in contact with the progress of students who are absent or who leave school early. These points come to my mind when discussing the education of disruptive students in particular.

The Bill includes references to last resort measures and I hope sanctions are used only as a last resort. The Minister has taken a very practical approach, trying to act like King Solomon in looking after the rights of the majority of students as well as those of individual students. It is a very difficult task but the Minister has shown she is able to accomplish that.

Suspension of students is a difficult issue. The Education Act 1998 assumed it would work but it did not, because of various loopholes. All of us have heard of situations on programmes such as RTE's "Liveline" that can be traumatic for students. For example, as Senator Tuffy said, some parents move home and children find themselves in a different environment. The Minister also mentioned an all-Irish division in schools, which was very interesting.

I welcome the Bill as it clears up some of the issues we discussed back in 1998 when debating the Education Act. I hope the loopholes have now been closed, although, as Senator O'Rourke said, others may arise. We should increase resources for the National Educational Welfare Board and the number of welfare officers. Thankfully, gardaí in my county have got onto their bicycles and are looking after law and order issues in the town and in rural areas of County Galway.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Is that for the election?

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

They were in the parade last Saturday.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I welcome the Minister to the House. I recently met a family in Ballina, County Mayo, who had to leave because they could not find a school for their child. The parents had to leave their jobs and uproot to the east coast to get an education for their child, which is regrettable in this day and age.

I will ask a question on special behavioural schools. The Mayo autism group is raising funds to set up a school in the county. It is looking for a site but would the Department of Education and Science be willing to fund the school if it were able to find one? There is not such a school in County Mayo at present.

I welcome the Bill.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis na Seanadóirí a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht seo agus a thug tacaíocht don Bhille.

A number of issues were raised that were of interest. Shortly after I was appointed discipline in schools was one of the first issues to be raised by the unions and I undertook to set up a task force on behaviour to examine the matter. There is not a crisis in our schools. A small number of schools have difficulties and a small number of children are involved. Where there is a problem, however, it can be serious for the children, for teachers and for other people in the school. It is therefore important to come up with a response which enables schools to deal with difficulties in a way which is appropriate for them. Not all schools need a behaviour support classroom and some may be able to deal with the challenges by, for example, offering different subjects or being included in the junior certificate support programme. They can ensure the individual needs of children with special needs are properly met and can put in place appropriate policies for that purpose.

Others need more targeted support. Recognising that, and building on the work of the task force, the behaviour support service was established. I have been very impressed by the calibre of the group, comprising as it does principals, teachers, people with special needs backgrounds and psychologists. It is a very broadly based group which appreciates and understands the varying needs of schools.

Senator Ulick Burke suggested a circular be issued to all schools to come forward but every school in the country was invited to various regional meetings at which the behaviour support service invited them to put forward submissions, following which the schools were invited to apply for assistance. Some 124 applied for assistance across a broad range of areas but 50 who appeared, in the eyes of the behaviour support team, to have the most serious needs, were identified for support in the first instance. The work has already started and the behaviour support teams, whose members have a variety of experience, now work in the schools in question, examining their policies and the range they offer to see how they can support them. Some will be allocated behaviour support classrooms as a result of that work, which I envisage happening very quickly, probably after Easter. It is very important those classrooms do not become a dumping ground and a student should never be in such a classroom permanently. The teams support the student to reintegrate fully into his or her school.

There is no set formula as to how the classrooms should be staffed but, in answer to Senator Tuffy's question, they will be staffed by qualified people. The team will consider what best suits the needs of a particular school. A school that requires a behaviour support classroom might need a teacher who is skilled in technical or practical subjects. It might also require a teacher who is well versed in the area of literacy or it might need a psychologist. However, there is no particular model. In my opinion, that is the best way to approach this because we will be then in a position to ensure we can meet the needs of particular schools.

I did not, at any stage, use the term "pilot". However, in so far as there is a pilot scheme it is designed to identify whether there is a best model that will work. That is why we are not entering into this with preconceived notions, which is an important point.

The Bill involves the balance between the right of an individual to an education, the right of majority to obtain an education and the health, welfare and safety of everyone within schools. The education of the individual must be our foremost concern because every child has a right to an education. It is important this right should be recognised and acknowledged and that the needs of children should be met. Regardless of whether this happens within the school system, by offering additional supports, by working with education welfare officers in respect of other placements or by working through, for example, a mechanism such as Youthreach, we must ensure children do not become sidelined.

Senator O'Rourke referred to two cases with which my Department's legal officers are extremely familiar. The Department of Education and Science would take very seriously any instances where decisions of appeals boards were not acted upon by schools. If necessary, it would go to the courts to ensure action would be taken and that the rights of children would be upheld.

Students have a range of rights under our Constitution and our laws, particularly the special educational needs legislation. I accept Senator O'Toole's comments with regard to ensuring staff in schools should be properly trained in respect of this matter. In light of the implementation of the legislation and the further obligations being placed on schools, particularly in the context of individual education plans, I have launched useful guidelines for primary and second level schools. I will pass on to the special education council the views of Senators on how teachers need to be supported in their work. In that context, I accept that teachers require support.

Senator Tuffy referred to the role of special needs schools. When discussing children with special needs, there is often a tendency to refer to mainstreaming and integration. This is a wonderful concept but it is not suitable for every child. Special schools do a tremendous job in meeting the needs of children of various intellectual abilities. We are fortunate to have such a range of such schools.

I am not sure about the concept that a child who is not getting on well in his or her school should spend some time at another school and then return. I would not like special schools to be seen as dumping grounds for their mainstream counterparts. There are, however, schools which can deal with those experiencing particular problems. For example, St. Oliver Plunkett special school in my constituency takes children with dyslexia for two years before returning them to the mainstream. In this instance, however, there is a formal programme in place. Benincasa special school deals with children with behavioural difficulties. Again, these children might spend a full school year or five or six school years in the school. This is probably a more structured and better way to proceed.

We are working with the special education council and are carrying out a study in respect of one school to see how the special schools, which have such expertise and experience, become centres of excellence, not just in their own right but also for schools in the surrounding area to which they might offer the support that is needed. There is no doubt this is one of the major issues facing our schools. I reiterate that this is why we prioritised the requirements of children with special needs before tackling class sizes. It is also why we appointed additional teachers and employed special needs assistants. We targeted children in this area in particular because they were the most neglected.

Senator O'Toole and others gave the impression that every problem in the education system would be solved if we reduce class sizes. Now that we have begun doing so, I look forward to every problem in the education system being solved.

Reference was made to bullying and the importance of dealing with cases involving bullying, which is crucial. Under the Education Act, every school is required to have a bullying policy. As stated earlier, the National Educational Welfare Board, NEWB, will be providing guidelines on the implementation of codes of behaviour, etc. In order to be of assistance to schools, particularly those of the second level variety, the Department's website contains a template of what might constitute a good bullying policy. It is suggested that a policy of this nature should be agreed among the principal, staff, students and parents so that from the outset everyone will know what will and will not be tolerated and how the policy will be implemented within a school. I agree with Senator Tuffy that it is not the job of the NEWB to deal with bullying in schools. Where a school has the right policies in place, it will not need to call in outside assistance because the procedures will be clear.

Senator Kitt referred to the good practice that exists in areas. Good practice should be transported from one area into another. If, as the Senator suggested, professionals in Tuam, County Galway, have good relationships with professionals in other areas, it would be important that they should share their expertise. I am not suggesting that everyone should become involved in holding meetings. However, it is important that professionals in different regions who are dealing with children in schools should talk to each other. It obviously would be to the benefit of children if psychologists with NEPS, education welfare officers with the NEWB, those working with the HSE and gardaí were in a position to share information on a professional and confidential basis.

Senator Ormonde referred to the whole-team approach, guidance and the home-school-community liaison scheme. It is extremely important that everyone in a school should be involved in dealing with this issue. It is only when a whole-school approach is taken that success can be achieved.

The Senator also referred to persistent behaviour. The word "persistent" is used in the Bill, as are those of "nature" and "scale" in the context of someone's behaviour. It can be very annoying to have someone chatting at the back of the class all day. However, this does not constitute a reason to expel a student. Such behaviour might be persistent but it would not qualify under the criteria relating to nature and scale. Equally, somebody might — God forbid — draw a knife on a teacher. This might not happen every day of the week. However, the authorities at a school might consider the fact that it happened once to be sufficient grounds to expel the person involved. These matters must all be taken into consideration.

I have dealt with the main issues raised by Members. The Bill, of which Members were extremely supportive, is designed to ensure an appeals board will have a proper structure within which to work and that it will be able to balance the rights of everyone involved in education while ensuring the quality of education offered in the classroom and the learning environment will be protected. I thank Senators for their interest in the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee Stage ordered for Thursday, 22 March 2007.

Senators:

Order for Second Stage.

Senators:

Bill entitled an Act to make new provision for the regulation of pharmacy, including provision for the dissolution of the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland and the setting up of a new Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland, for the establishment, constitution and functions of the new society's council, for a new system of registration of qualified pharmacists, druggists and pharmaceutical assistants and of pharmacies, for the creation of certain offences relating to pharmacy and for the setting up of new procedures to ensure that pharmacists are and continue to be fit to practise; and to provide for related matters.

Photo of Camillus GlynnCamillus Glynn (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move: "That Second Stage be taken today."

Question put and agreed to.