Wednesday, 1 February 2017
I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for dealing with this Commencement matter on what is an important and welcome consultation.
In a speech on 16 January, the Minister stated he would commence a short ten to 12 week process of consultation. It is disappointing, therefore, that the Minister has reduced this consultation to only four weeks. In my experience as a county councillor, I have never seen such a short consultation period, be it for a planning permission or statutory consultation. Indeed, a recent consultation in my home area of Stepaside on a new park had a pre-consultation period of six weeks with a statutory consultation of at least eight weeks still to follow.
I must ask the Minister, therefore, what is the rush. It is often said that bad decisions are made in haste and I am sure the Minister, like me, is keen that the new proposals agreed on for school admissions are the correct ones, and ones that will stand the test of time. Schools, parents, prospective parents, churches and teachers' groups need proper time to discuss the proposals and to draft submissions that accurately reflect their preferences or possible concerns. Such submissions may also have to be made following internal consultations, including the carrying out of surveys of parents or other groups. The shortened four-week period, which clashes with a February mid-term break, puts many people and groups in a position where they are under pressure to complete a submission, especially given that many of those who hope to make a submission are doing so voluntarily in their own time.
Needless to say, my office has been inundated with representations on this shortened consultation period, with particular concern from those involved in education involving minority faiths - the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church as well as the Jewish and Muslim faiths - not to mention those from a Roman Catholic or secular background who do not believe that they have been given sufficient time to make a meaningful contribution. As the role of religion in admissions raises legal and constitutional issues, stakeholders may need to obtain legal advice to inform their submissions. The shortened period will prevent stakeholders from obtaining this advice in sufficient time to formulate their submissions.
The implications of the measures proposed by the Minister are extremely serious for all faith-based schools, especially minority faith-based schools. The current proposals represent a fundamental shift in Irish education policy which merits careful and serious consideration by all the stakeholders in education. It is important the Minister hears from the widest possible range of stakeholders who will be impacted by the proposals.
I am broadly supportive of the Minister's efforts. Indeed, I come from the generation that is possibly most affected by the current policies. Among my friends and peers in Dublin, the topic of securing a school place for a child now dominates conversation, even more so than possible house purchases, wedding plans and other such grown-up topics. However, the short period permitted for consultation prevents the various stakeholders from engaging in a meaningful and genuine consultation with the Minister, suggesting, perhaps, that the matter has been pre-determined. In the interests of proper consultation, I would appeal one last time to the Minister to extend this consultation period.
I thank Senator Richmond for raising this issue. This is an important issue and it has been considerably debated. As the Senator will be aware, the Labour Party's Bill was introduced last year, involving a deadline of 12 months which is coming up in June of this year, where one particular proposal was outlined by the Labour Party. It was agreed by the Dáil that we would have parallel tracks, one track being the admissions policy, for which we have the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016, and the other being continuing consultation, which has been under way since June in terms of the Oireachtas committee, on the Labour Party's Bill, which deals with only one option. I was keen to broaden that consideration in order that when the Dáil and Seanad would come to consider these Bills, we would have the benefit of a broad consultation and I would have the opportunity to hear the views of stakeholders within the education system and bring that to bear on the various Committee Stage and Report Stage discussions.
As the Senator will be aware, this is only concerned with primary schools. This concerns the admission policies to more than 3,000 primary schools. It comes from the growing sense of frustration for parents that at times they cannot get access to their local school, they may find children coming from a very far distance to get preference over a child who lives beside the school or they may be under pressure, as they see it, to baptise their child when that is not their preference.
To try to resolve this, I have set out four separate options. The first, much along the lines of the Labour Party Bill, is a catchment approach where one could only have preference exercised by a denominational school within that catchment area. The second is similar in that it would look at the nearest school of that denomination and one could only exercise preference for a child in that denomination if it was the closest school of that denomination. The third is a quota system where there would be a limited quota over which preference could be given. The fourth is an outright prohibition on religion as a criterion for admission, but making sure that there could still be a capacity to allow religious schools to require parents or students to indicate support or respect for the ethos of the school.
The reason I have had a consultation is I am mindful of the possible pitfalls and unintended consequences and it has been clear that some other parties in the House have expressed the intention to put forward amendments, not only to the Labour Party's Bill but to the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016, which is on a tight schedule because many want to see that implemented for the coming school year, which is a correct ambition. I am keen to see the twin-track approach respected and I hope that can be done.
To clarify, the ten to 12 week consultation was the entire consultation. I envisaged a period during which written submissions could be made and we could assess those. That would be followed by that assessment internally. There could then be the necessity of meetings with individual groups which raise particular issues. My ambition was that, in setting a ten to 12 week period, we would be in a position by the end of April to deal with the issues if they came up under the Labour Party's Bill, which I believe is the correct approach. If the issues were to arise earlier, with some party seeking to have these dealt with in the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016, then we would be in a position to present a properly evaluated position by the Department on this issue. It is timely that we bring these forward.
I am conscious of the points the Senator makes. I will consider the issue he raises of extending the period but I emphasise that there is a certain sense of urgency with this.There are two Bills currently before the House that will be progressing to Committee Stage. The Labour Party's Bill is expected to go to Committee Stage some time after June and the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill will be dealt with before then. There is a strong sense of the need to get views into the Department. I know that when deadlines are set for submissions there is often a tendency for people to leave it to the very end of the period before they make a submission. I will bear in mind what the Senator has said and his expression of genuine concerns because we do want to give people the opportunity to make submissions. I will consider what he has said but I would ask that all of those who are interested in making a submission to make a strong effort now to get views together, carry out assessments and be in a position to submit them before the deadline. That said, I will consider the possibility of extending it.
Is Senator Richmond happy with that? Before the Senator responds, I have two observations to make. At this stage of my life, this affects my grandchildren but is it primarily a Dublin issue? The Minister referred to a Labour Party Bill. Has that been adopted by the current Government?
I should not be intruding on Senator Richmond's time but ----
Just to clarify, the Labour Party Bill has passed Second Stage but on the basis that its further passage will occur in June of this year, giving the time to the Oireachtas committee on education to evaluate the potential issues with it in the meantime. The committee is currently in the process of evaluating that Bill. Clearly it is appropriate that my Department and the stakeholders that report to it would be in a position to collate views as well so that I, as Minister, can bring the wisdom of the education stakeholders and the Department to bear on the debate that is under way.
This issue is not just confined to one area and it reflects the fact that at primary level, 96% of schools are denominational but at this stage, one third of marriages are occurring outside of any denominational religion. It signals that there are people of no religion who want different educational options. There are also many Catholics who would prefer to see other options being made available. We are responding to change but we need to do it in a way that is sensitive to traditions and to the respect, constitutional and otherwise, for religious, denominational schools and the rights of those schools. That is the importance of this issue.
I thank the Minister for his response, which is very welcome. The initial ten to 12 consultation week period displayed a considerable level of understanding but I appreciate that the Minister has clarified the situation in that regard. Many of the groups concerned are not leaving things until the last minute. I outlined earlier the reason for the delays, namely, that it takes a lot of effort, time, people and moving parts to get a proper submission prepared.
As the Minister said himself, this is a very complicated issue. I am supportive of the general idea and I do not want my contribution to be interpreted otherwise. However, I feel that a four-week period for written submissions is too short, especially in the context of the obstacles I have outlined. I appreciate that the Minister will take this into consideration and appeal to him to consider extending the deadline by a fortnight or two to accommodate the mid-term break.