Tuesday, 19 January 2016
I welcome the Minister to the Chamber for this Commencement debate.
Recently, I had the honour of speaking at the launch of Equate, a new non-governmental organisation dealing with children's rights and education reform. I welcome Mr. Michael Barron and his team to the Visitors' Gallery. Equate wants to see an education system that reflects the diversity of 21st century Ireland and a child-centred approach to education reform. As the Minister will be aware, this was a key recommendation of Dáil na nÓg in November last. Indeed, the Minister, Deputy James Reilly, invited the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, to debate this with the participants of Dáil na nÓg. I commend his recommendation on the importance of hearing children's voices with respect to education and school policies because, all too often in the debate on education, it is the adults who speak and we do not listen to the young people and children who are directly involved.
The Minister was before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child last Thursday last in Geneva, and I commend him on his performance there. As we all will be aware, the test results will come out in early February with the concluding observations by the committee. On behalf of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, I had the honour of travelling there to observe. First, I commend the Minister on the fact that we sent such a strong delegation of officials from across Departments, because it shows that we recognise the importance of the UN process and ensures that we can give accurate and appropriate answers and track our progress.
As the Minister will be aware, especially in light of the international experts who make up the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Ireland was under serious scrutiny concerning schools admission policies and it was hard to avoid the difficult questions. For too long we have allowed schools to operate in a way that breaches our children's rights, including those specified under the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. These violations occur in a number of guises, including the disproportionate religious patronage of schools and enrolment inequality which results in a lack of access and choice for parents. Indeed, another issue that came up at the UN committee is the right of transgender children to be protected and respected in all schools.
The lack of pluralism in the education system is a serious human rights issue affecting many families, and successive UN Human Rights Committees have voiced their concerns to Ireland in this regard. Specifically, on Thursday last, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child asked questions about the denominational structure of the education system, which creates difficulties for families who want to educate their children in a non-denominational setting. They also wanted to know about our policies promoting inclusive education.
In preparation for Ireland's hearing in June last, a delegation of young people travelled to Geneva to meet the committee members and talk about their experiences. As we often see when we stop and listen to young people, they were articulate, confident and open. One of them spoke about his experience in a religious school as a non-religious person. This is a voice we do not hear enough in the Irish debate about education reform, and I am worried that if we do not start to include the voices of young people, we will not achieve a reformed system that puts the needs of children front and centre.
As legislators, we must engage with these growing concerns and deliver the reform necessary to ensure that all children are welcome in our schools. I believe the time is right for change. We should not be doing it only because the UN Committee on the Rights of the Children or other UN bodies do it. We should be doing it because children and parents are telling us it is the right thing to do. It is time to have equality in our classrooms and make it a reality. I sought this debate because I want to know what progress has been made in setting up arrangements between the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Department of Education and Skills to ensure that the best interests and the voice of the child are at the centre of a more diverse and pluralist educational system.
I thank the Senator. I welcome the opportunity to outline the steps that my Department will take in this important area and confirm my commitment to working with my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, to ensure that children's rights are promoted and protected.
Comhairle na nÓg are local councils for children and young people aged 12 to 17 years that give them a voice in the development of local policies and services. They are the recognised national structure for participation by children and young people in decision-making in all 31 local authorities. Dáil na nÓg is the national youth parliament for 12 to 17-year-olds. It is a biennial event to which 200 representatives from Comhairle na nÓg are elected as delegates. The topics discussed at Dáil na nÓg are chosen by young people themselves in the 31 Comhairle na nÓg.
Each of the 31 Comhairle na nÓg elects one representative to the national executive to serve for a two-year period. The role of the Comhairle na nÓg national executive is to follow up on the top recommendation from the previous Dáil na nÓg and seek to have it implemented. These structures are supported by a dedicated citizen participation unit in my Department, the role of which is to ensure that children and young people have a voice in the design, delivery and monitoring of services and policies that affect their lives at national and local level. It collaborates with other Departments, statutory bodies and non-governmental organisations.
As the Senator has pointed out, the topic for discussion at Dáil na nÓg in November 2015 was the need for young people to have a stronger voice in their education and schools. Workshops were held at the event to allow the 200 young delegates to explore the issue under the following four topic headings: subject choice; transition year; what happens in the classroom; and uniforms and personal appearance. The topic of what happens in the classroom was voted by delegates as the most important area on which they need to have a stronger voice. The most commonly raised issues under this topic were teacher behaviour, discipline, how students are treated, student voice, class size and teaching methods. Developing this topic will form the core of the work of the incoming Comhairle na nÓg national executive.
I am pleased to say that a significant change has been made to the way the work of the national executive will be supported. For the first time, at my invitation, Dáil na nÓg 2015 was attended by the Minister relevant to the topic under discussion, who was the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy O'Sullivan. She gave a commitment that officials from her Department will work with my Department in supporting the Comhairle na nÓg national executive over the next two years. This is part of a new mechanism to connect Comhairle na nÓg with Brighter Outcomes, Better Futures, which is the national policy framework for children and young people for the period 2014-20.
Into the future, the Minister responsible for the topic under discussion will attend Dáil na nÓg and nominate lead officials from his or her Department to work with my officials in supporting the Comhairle na nÓg national executive. In addition, a steering committee of key policy makers will be established to support the national executive. Direct engagement between the Better Outcomes, Brighter Futuresimplementation structures and the Comhairle na nÓg national executive will also take place.
The first meeting of the new national executive took place on Saturday, 16 January. It began the process of exploring the issues raised at Dáil na nÓg to identify the precise aspects of the topic "what happens in the classroom" that those involved wish to pursue. The Department of Education and Skills is appointing a senior official to work with my Department to support the national executive in achieving the changes in the education system called for at Dáil na nÓg 2015.
I wish to confirm the importance of this issue and look forward with interest to the outcome of the work that Comhairle na nÓg will be doing in this area.
I thank the Minister for personally attending the Seanad to take this matter. It is important that his Department has a key role in looking at our education policy and ensuring that both the voice of the child and the best interests of the child are not only heard, but play a key role. The structures that are being set up are doing that.
It was very interesting for me, when we were before the UN committee, to hear how difficult it was for UN committee members to get their heads around our education system and admission policies, and how children are heard within the school system. In that regard, I wish to put on record our thanks to all the NGO groups and civil society. The Minister has done so himself. When the committee members asked questions, one could see that they used the Children's Rights Alliance parallel report, in particular, as their template for posing questions to the Minister. Organisations such as Equate, representatives from which were very much part of that and travelled as part of the delegation, are there to provide both support and services. It would be of benefit to such bodies, in shaping their plans, to hear about the work that Comhairle and the Department are doing. All too often we talk about children's rights but when it comes to doing anything or acting on behalf of children, we forget to ask the children for their views. In fairness to the Minister, that is exactly what he is doing. He is ensuring they will have a voice and that it will be heard. That is his role. For me, this highlights the importance of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. I look forward to ongoing co-operation in this area.
I wish to reassure the House that the participation unit in the Department - the strategy itself is, I believe, the first of its kind in the world - is there to allow the voice of the child to be heard. My view on this matter is very clear. If we do not have the input from children, the users of our services, whether such services be in the areas of education, health, housing, etc., then we cannot possibly hope to address their needs. They are more familiar with their needs than we are. We must ensure that they have to say is not just heard, but that is listened to and reflected in what we do.
It was great to be able to say in my closing remarks to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in Geneva that, through the good offices of the Children's Rights Alliance and the Ombudsman's office, there were young people looking in who had made submissions and who had been listened to in the past. I hope those young people heard the issues they raised being discussed. To them, I want to say a big "Thank you". I also want to say thank you to all the NGOs that made the effort to send representatives to the hearing and to inform the committee. I have no doubt but that the latter nudged the members of the committee along in respect of some of the questions they asked, particularly after lunch.
In fairness, and to be serious about this, if we want to drive forward and make progress we need everybody who is involved to be engaged in the process. We need to listen to each other. In that way we will learn more from one another and from other countries and we can make this the best country - not just the best small country - in the world in which to grow up and raise a family.